The Replicant in the Room: a Few Thoughts on Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 is marvellous to look at, does fantastic work in the scenes imagining people’s struggle to survive amidst the environmental wreckage of our planet but is ultimately undone by a totally ludicrous plot.

Everything that’s wrong with this movie is encapsulated in the opening act.  Blade Runner K shows up to retire Sapper, an old Nexus-8 replicant, doing his best to keep his head down as a protein farmer.  In 2049 the Earth’s a basket case – no wildlife, no trees, freak weather, vast industrial graveyards, a ten-day blackout that destroyed most records and data, sky-high radiation pockets – and this guy’s doing sterling work as an upstanding citizen, feeding people and he gets retired?  Yeah right.

The film never recovers because it’s quite impossible to make any suspension of disbelief concerning the plot that’s supposed to be driving it.  Yes, one can believe that thirty years before, Deckard would have had to go into hiding to escape being hunted down but the notion that the need for Blade Runners endured across the next thirty years of environmental and technological reverses just doesn’t hold water.

In 2049, despite a feeble and futile attempt to drum up an ‘old replicant coming rebellion’ subplot, the old replicants clearly represent no kind of existential threat (why? See thirty years of environmental and technological reverses that have brought our planet to its knees).  The main old replicants that we meet are either retired in the more usual sense; Deckard, or else are good people; Sapper and the Pris-a-like hooker.

Even the discovery that two old replicants had a child doesn’t alter this dynamic.  In fact, the film undermines the motivations of Wallace, the new Tyrell, and his henchwoman Luv by having this discovery arise from the actions of a Blade Runner.  Their quest for this holy grail would have been more credible if they had learnt of the existence of this child from elsewhere – a pre-blackout data fragment from Tyrell for example.  Indeed this could have better driven the whole movie without there being any need for a Blade Runner at all.

There are other things I could gripe about; the ease with which Luv penetrates the inner sanctums of LAPD HQ at will, for example and the colossal misstep of Wallace trying to turn Deckard with the offer of a new Rachel.

I enjoyed the movie and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone else but everything I got out of it was in spite of the plot.  I’ll watch anything with Ryan Gosling and he’s great in this – especially the scene where he unwinds a little with his boss (played by Robin Wright).  The visualisation of what our planet is probably actually going to be like in the real 2049, or thereabouts, is phenomenal.  The long scene where K goes to the orphanage and the Mad Max like scene where K’s spinner is brought down in a wasteland, were probably my two favourites in the whole film because they focussed more on this aspect than the plot.  Oh and the music’s great.

There are shout outs to the original Blade Runner all the way through – the sort of reverse Voight-Kampff test that K has to periodically undergo – the clamouring neon ads (but Peugeot, really?!?!) – and, most originally, the opening overflight of the solar farms aping the one over the petroleum flares.  Overall 3.5 stars.

 

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On Scientific Fiction

When Hugo Gernsback was first casting around for a pithy term for the new genre fiction he was featuring  in his pulps, he opted for the portmanteau ‘Scientifiction.’  It didn’t catch on and, rather reluctantly, he tried again, this time with ‘Science Fiction.’

The earliest of his magazines, with titles like Electrical Experimenter (founded 1913), featured both stories and science journalism.  By the time Amazing Stories – his first magazine solely dedicated to SF – arrived, in 1926, the genre had already settled down into the standard form for the Golden Age – stories set in the future, often on distant planets featuring extraterrestrials, speculating, more or less wildly, on how the technologies of the time might one day have advanced.

Tales which particularly closely adhered to the known laws of physics, became known as ‘Hard’ SF.  This sub-genre is exemplified by Hal Clement’s classic short Dust Rag (1956), in which a lunar explorer out on EVA, has to figure out how to clear away the statically-charged moon dust covering his visor, or die.  The story is both satisfyingly scientific and, by virtue of its future lunar setting, classic SF.

Which is all a roundabout way of broaching the question; is all scientific fiction, Science Fiction, or does there arrive a point where the science component of the story is so rooted in the known and the present that it becomes something different?

I recently read Those Who Seek, Daniil Granin’s 1954 novel about the lives and loves of staff at a Soviet electrical power transmission research institute.  It’s a thrilling and absorbing tale, in part because of the window it opens onto how (relatively) ordinary people lived their lives under the Soviet system, in part because of what the book has to say about that system itself (and it’s not in any way a propaganda piece) and in part because of the gorgeous translation by Robert Dalglish (mine is the Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, edition), which brings the story alive and makes you care about the characters.

The overarching story focusses on new laboratory head, the aloof and unworldly Lobanov.  At work, he battles conflicting resource demands, Party politics and bureaucratic inertia, to try and get support for the development of his baby – an improved ‘locator’ for finding breaks in transmission lines.  Off duty, the reader follows the course of his unsatisfactory affair with the enigmatic Rita.

There are scenes that will be familiar to anyone who has worked in science and technology.  The heartbreaking one where engineer-turned-housewife Liza first attends, the flees her class reunion after suffering the disdainful disappointment of her former professor.  The joyous epiphany via which the fading Chief Engineer, Dmitri Alexeyevich first grasps and then decides to back Lobanov’s project.  And of course you want to slap Lobanov around the head a few times, when he rebuffs force-of-nature Nina’s interest in him at the annual Komsomol outing.

And there are some fabulous throwaway references, notably to the finest poetry on scientific themes being that written by the great Lomonosov.  Granin, the author, would doubtless have been very familiar with his works.  Now I despair of ever finding any in English translation, well apart from this one.

Is Those Who Seek SF?  My heart says yes, my head says no, even given the MacGuffin of Lobanov’s ‘locator.’  I have another Granin in my ‘to read’ pile: Into The Storm about weather forecasting/control – let’s see how that turns out!

In western SF, the works of William Gibson are an interesting case.  Since his debut Neuromancer (1984) and its off-planet denouément – undeniably SF, he’s slowly been creeping back towards the present and reining-in the tech to the point where Spook Country (2007) is almost better labelled a techno-thriller.  Maybe that’s one way we reclassify fiction dealing with the known science of the present.

In Irish writing, John Banville’s biographical trilogy of works on Copernicus, Kepler and Newton (Doctor Copernicus (1976) (which I read this year), Kepler (1981) and The Newton Letter (1982)) is sometimes loosely referred to as science fiction.  The three books are, of course, first and foremost historical fiction about scientists but Banville infuses them with enough reflection on the nature of the cosmos, that treating  them as forward-looking speculative fiction is not unreasonable.

Scientific fiction is a without question a topic that grows in the telling.  I can see myself returning to it again in the not too distant future.

A Shout-out for George Antheil

Reading, earlier this evening, a piece on the upcoming Hedy Lamarr mini-series focussing on the invention of frequency-hopping spread spectrum, I was struck by the author’s use of the phrase ‘Lamarr and a friend invented…’

Evidently, this “friend” could only be the eminent avant-garde composer, George Antheil, co-holder of US Patent No. 2,292,387 (filed June 10th, 1941).  Yet the author of the piece had decided to bleach him out of the picture.  It’s just one more example of the growing practice of downplaying the male side of equal collaborations between men and women, in the interests of a good story.  No doubt some wag out there has already coined a term for this.  Femsplaining anyone?  X-punging?

Clearly any narrative where the so-called ‘most beautiful woman in the world’ demonstrates the intellect to succeed in military engineering, thereby overturning any number of the prejudices of her time, is compelling.  However, that Lamarr’s and Antheil’s work was a collaboration of equals, is beyond doubt.  It’s clear in Richard Rhodes’s 2011 book; it’s equally clear in Elyse Singer’s 2008 play – the last time that this episode in their lives was dramatised.

The pair of them were two loners trapped in the Hollywood system; she as an actress, he as a composer.  This drew them into friendship.  For their work, carried out in the context of a torpedo guidance system for the US Navy that would be immune to jamming, in anticipation of the US war effort, Antheil brought his machine synchronisation expertise to the table, Lamarr the weapons system knowledge acquired during her first marriage to an Austrian arms dealer.

What is particularly sad about the bleaching out of Antheil, is that in the 1920’s he had been as eminent in his field as Lamarr was in hers come the 1940’s – it’s not even as if he were some insignificant boffin.  The height of Antheil’s notoriety came at the US premier, in 1927, of his Ballet Mécanique, at the Carnegie Hall.  Contemporary reports allude to fist fights and riots.  The Carnegie’s own timeline entry for April 10th 1927 records:-

Composer George Antheil, the self-styled “bad boy of music,” presents the US premiere of his Ballet mécanique on April 10.  Conducted by Eugène Goossens, the performance featured xylophones, electric bells, anvils, airplane propellers, sirens, assorted percussion instruments, player pianos, and regular pianos, including one played by a 26-year-old Aaron Copland.  According to The New York Times, some members of the audience cheered, some hissed, and “one beleaguered man” even tied a white handkerchief to his cane, “hoisted it over his head and waved it from side to side in a token of surrender.”

Moreover, it was the synchronisation engineering challenges which Antheil had addressed during the realisation of this piece, that gave him the grounding needed for the later frequency hopping work with Lamarr.  Of course some of Antheil’s solutions for Ballet Mécanique had been crude and cumbersome and it was only in 1999, thanks to modern technology, that a revival of the work was for the first time performed exactly as the composer intended.

Lamarr and Antheil jointly received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award in 1997.  By then, Antheil had been dead for almost forty years.  Lamarr was still around and was able to quite justifiably remark ‘it’s about time.’  It would be nice to imagine that Lamarr’s longevity is the principal reason why hers is the first name to be associated with the work today; certainly I’d be surprised if one in a thousand who are aware of what she achieved, could name her co-author.  Unfortunately I doubt it; I suspect that poor George just keeps getting X-punged in the interests of a good narrative.

Coda: The More You Dig (added 03/Oct/2017)

I’d made a short foray into Antheil’s music two or three years ago, finding nice recordings of the Ballet Mécanique and some of his avant garde piano music from the same period.  Revisiting him since penning the above, it’s pretty clear that my remarks regarding his stature in the musical world are an underestimation.  During his time in Hollywood, he wrote over thirty film scores and by the mid-1940’s, he was a symphonist of considerable repute, lauded in classical music circles as ‘The American Shostokovitch.’

I found also a few snippets of interest to SF&F fans.  In 1955, Antheil wrote the score for John Parker’s landmark horror fantasy movie Dementia, which anticipated the tone and style of David Lynch’s work by several decades.  It’s widely regarded as one of Antheil’s best scores, in significant part due to the eerie, wordless vocals performed by Marni Nixon.  In 1958, a recording of one of Antheil’s late works Two Odes of John Keats (1950) was made, a year before he died, with the composer himself on piano and Vincent Price as the narrator.

Animal Stories

I’ve been asked several times in recent months, why I never seem to pen anything about my own writing.  I suppose my reticence stems from being largely unpublished; what is the point, if nobody ‘out there’ is going to be in a position to read anything that I refer to, should they like the sound of it?

My Irish Tales ought to have been out later this summer.  Unfortunately, the editor I hired to help me, took my money, then promptly decamped to China and vanished, leaving work unfinished (I know, I know – I was stupid enough to pay upfront – what did I expect?) – so it’s going to be delayed until spring 2018.  Nevertheless, I’ve decided to stick to my original plan and say a little bit about the book now.  Keeping the momentum building for nine months or so is going to be interesting.

Surprisingly, Irish Tales will feature several examples of something I never thought I’d ever write – the story written from the animal’s (anthropomorphic) viewpoint.  Of course I’d read and enjoyed Jack London’s White Fang as a kid but, with the exception of William Kotzwinkle’s stunning Doctor Rat, I’d never sought out similar books as an adult.

The seeds of change were sown when I came to read Francis Stuart’s Pigeon Irish, as background for one of my Irish speculative fiction blogs.  I was surprised that this tale of an alternate Ireland allied with the US and UK, in a war against an unnamed, superior European foe (it was written in 1932), included a sub plot featuring three carrier pigeons: Conquistador, Daphnis and Buttercup.

Stuart never really seemed to know what to do with his birds; they start strong but fizzle out, the longer the book goes on; certainly, the definitive anthropomorphic carrier pigeon novel remains to be written.  However, when commemorations for 1916 started to loom large, I decided to write a short hommage to Stuart, positing ‘what if’ the Rising had occurred in this alternate Ireland, sixteen years before the events of Pigeon Irish.  The resulting short story, Castles in the Air, was told from the viewpoint of two pigeons observing the events around the Dublin GPO.  I submitted it to several publications doing special 1916 issues, for their consideration; I think it’s fair to say that none of them ‘got it.’  But I had broken my anthropomorphic duck.

Next up was my short story Lemon Cakes, in which a Jack Russell dog, Smut, falls foul of some broic sidhe (fairy badgers).  The titular cakes feature in how he manages to extricate himself from the fix.  Smut, incidentally, was the name of the first pet dog I ever owned, many moons ago, also a Jack Russell as it happens.  They say, write what you know!  Recently, I was delighted to discover that the name of Allan Quatermain’s pet dog was also Smut.  The reference can be found in H. Rider Haggard’s She and Allan.

Lemon Cakes spawned a longer and more ambitious sequel, The Limping Mink, told largely through the viewpoint of a mink Lochincha and concerning the adventures of he and his two brothers, Sangwiss and Kolokok in rural Ireland and in particular the horrors of being caught in a gin.  Smut and the broic sidhe also reappear in the tale. As mink are an invasive species from North America, I gave the three brothers a native American belief system, centred on Inktomi the spider-man, trickster god of the Lakota Sioux.  Mink feature prominently in several Lakota folktales.

So Castles in the Air, Lemon Cakes and The Limping Mink will all appear in Irish Tales when it comes out.  And having travelled this far, I can now see myself writing many more animal stories in the future!

Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction

As soon as I heard that this new exhibition at London’s Barbican Centre (running June 3rd – Sept 1st 2017) was being curated by Patrick Gyger, it became a ‘must attend’ for me. I’d met Patrick a few times during his decade-long tenure at the Maison d’Ailleurs, while I was still active in the space industry and every time been bowled over by his knowledge.  He provided me with useful and welcome advice while I was putting together the space strand of the Earthwake science in television forum, held in Strasbourg in 2007.

The first thing you notice about the main exhibition is the extraordinarily broad range of things it brings together – ample testament to Gyger’s pull.  There’s a strong emphasis on material on paper (books, pulp covers, collectors’ cards, Soviet-era publications, film & TV concept art), again consistent with what I know of Gyger’s interests and priorities.  Display cases show off key books on each of SF’s main themes.  As a book nut, this was a joy to me; I had my pencil and paper out, noting down titles that were new to me (eg; Alexander Beliaev’s The Amphibian, Plutonia by Vladimir Obruchev) and I started to play a game – two points for a book on my shelves at home, five for the exact same edition (I scored 201).  It was nice to see that the Barbican shop had made an effort to stock the titles on display, even if most of the lesser-known ones were absent.  However I did pick up a copy of Ayn Rand’s dazzling Anthem, and read it on the flight home.

As already mentioned, the breadth of exhibits was impressive.  Ray Harryhausen was very well represented with extensive concept art from a several movies (my favourite was the unrealised man-eating plant from The Mysterious Island) and a clutch of latex dinosaurs including Gwangi himself.  I saw the actual H.R. Giger Harkonnen capo chair created for Jodorowsky’s Dune.  There were several gorgeous, painstakingly accurate models of vehicles out of Jules Verne (I think lent by the Éspace Jules Verne of the Maison D’Ailleurs) including the Nautilus, the Albatros and the Lunar train.  There was the original Spindrift, which took me back to Saturday mornings as a kid and the submarine from Fantastic Voyage.  I could go on.

Modern movies were well represented.  There were props from Interstellar, Moon, Alien, Independence Day, Jurassic Park, various Godzilla’s, Star Wars, to name a few and, my favourite of all, the quite beautiful Horus and Anubis masks from Stargate.  To accompany the props, there were clips showing at various points ranging from iconic SF moments (Rover’s first appearance in The Prisoner), through early, historically important films (some fascinating Soviet stuff here), to quirky curios like the Turkish Star Wars (think space-suited actors in the foreground with a bootleg Star Wars space battle backdrop, the aspect ratio tweaked to make it look original – the rugby-ball-shaped Death Star is a hoot).

I had a number of gripes with the exhibition.  First off, the narrow, crescent shaped, high-ceilinged exhibition space being used was a disaster, for several reasons.  Some of the major movie props on view were too high-up to be easily studied and there were several points in the walk-through, where display cases were blocked by other attendees standing to watch film clips projected onto an adjacent wall.  I was there at a quiet time too; this issue would have been far worse had it been full.

Attendees were encouraged to take their own photos but the display of items was not photo-friendly, due to reflections and glare.  More attention could have been given to this aspect.  The catalogue (yes I bought one – £35.00) was both impressive and disappointing.  What it covered was great but it was very much slanted towards books, magazines and paintings.  There was sparse attention given to the movie and TV props on show in the exhibition.  I don’t know if this was due to a copyright conflict or what but the practical consequence of all this was that I had stopped taking photos, assuming the objects would be featured in the catalogue only to discover afterwards that they were not.  This annoyed me greatly – I would strongly recommend that anyone attending, intending to buy a catalogue does so (and looks through it) before walking around the exhibition.  That way you can ensure that you can photograph the things not featured in it, if you want a record of them.

There were a few satellite exhibits elsewhere in the Barbican.  I don’t think I located them all; the signposting was not great and in addition, part of the building was cordoned off for a ‘private event,’ which meant detours.  Standout of the rest was the half-hour movie In the Future They Ate From the Finest Porcelain, by Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind.  This was a none-too-subtle allegory on the Palestinian conflict, with a glorious central premise.  It came across to me as a Terry Pratchett-like idea, reflected through the philosophical prism of a Stanislaw Lem (think a female Ijon Tichy, dodging wackers in the world of Strata).

 

Conor McPherson’s ‘The Weir.’

I’ve long wanted to see The Weir and the Gaiety Theatre’s new production finally gave me the opportunity.  It’s fair to say that, excellent though it was, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

When one is making one’s lists of speculative fiction writers it’s easy to overlook the playwrights, if they work little in other written forms and rightly or wrongly, The Weir had popped up on my radar in this context.

The play does contain four supernatural stories, told by four of the five protagonists.  There’s a family tragedy story, a messing about with the ouija board story, a burial story and a story of the faeries.  Three of them were ho-hum run of the mill sort of stuff, at least for this aficionado of the form.  The fourth – the one told by handyman Jim – was pretty stunning.

To call The Weir a work of supernatural fiction, however, is perhaps over-egging the pudding.  Equally, it’s unfair to lump it in with those ensemble pub and club tall stories – Buchan’s Runagates, or Dunsany’s Jorkens, for example – which are an end to themselves, for the tales, as told in The Weir have a more transcendent effect on the narrative.

This narrative has two strands.  The first is a very conventional one for Irish drama- that of the sad, lonely lives of rural men; the first ‘act’ (the play runs for nearly two hours without a break), cursing aside, could have been written by Synge, Friel or anyone in between.  The third ‘act’ too, is straight out of this mould, as the young blank cypher, the barman Brendan, is completely unable to respond to Jack’s tale of lost love, thereby likely condemning himself to a similarly empty fate.

The second strand belongs to the long second ‘act’ which contains the supernatural stories.  Blow-in Valerie is fleeing family tragedy and it is through hearing the others’ supernatural tales, told as if true, that she begins to believe in the truth of her own tale; they are thus the catalyst for her healing process to begin.

As I mentioned above, Jim’s tale is the standout by a long way.  The playwright knows this as evidenced by the prolonged, gobsmacked silence on stage when Jim finishes.  It would be the perfect place to break the play for an interval too – let the audience stew on what they’ve just heard for twenty minutes or so.  Overall, though the production was strong, entertaining and the time just flew by.

Great Con: Shame About the Rebellion

So Octocon 2016 has come and gone and what a good one it was!  As a long-time Tomb Raider, Russian mythology and Zimiamvia nut, I couldn’t have put together a better Guest of Honour line-up to suit my interests than Diane Duane, Peter Morwood and Rhianna Pratchett, if I had been running the con myself!

But of of course having the right guests is only part of the picture and one could not but be impressed by the gusto with which the Duane/Morwood double act threw themselves into the programming; indeed it is eminently plausible that they had to bring some android avatars with them so as to be in several places at once.  Rhianna Pratchett was equally engaging and it was very pleasing that the focus was very much kept on her own achievements and avoided the (presumable) temptation of reminiscing on those of her late father.

Often I seem to be the only Worm Ouroboros/Zimiamvia fan at a con so I wasn’t going to pass up a chance to ask Diane about her own interest, during the GoH speech Q&A.  It was an absolute pleasure to hear her enthuse about Lord Gro, Fiorinda and all the rest of Eddison’s wonderful characters, even if I got the sense that no-one else in the room bar the two of us had much idea of what she was talking about.  Of course Eddison’s cod-Elizabethan prose can be a barrier to the reader but like the lady said, there’s no better time to overcome that than the present, given the number of fantasy TV shows and movies that are now getting made and of course, with Game of Thrones meets Downton Abbey, the Zimiamvian trilogy now has a ready made killer tag-line.

I went to a lot of the panels this year and the quality of the panellists was uniformly high.  Another nice innovation (I suppose it may have been done before but I only became aware of this year) was the Octocon table in the dealer’s room, where self published authors could deposit their works to be sold, in return for a modest fee.  Hopefully I’ll be availing of this facility next year, if my Irish Tales is ready on schedule.

The con did make one inexplicable choice.  Obviously someone decided it would be a good thing to give 2016 the theme of Rebellion on foot of it being the centenary of the Rising.  This was a fine idea BUT WHERE WAS THE CORRESPONDING PROGRAMME THREAD???  Of course there’s only one of me and I can’t attend everything – maybe there were panels that dealt with this that I didn’t go to, in which case my apologies.  But surely it wouldn’t have been too much to expect one dedicated, so-named panel on the Rising and Republicanism in SF&F, to convey the re-creation of the shelling of the Four Courts from Pigeon Irish, Jack O’Halloran’s flying suit from A Modern Daedalus and much more to a new generation of readers.

[Update: 17/10, 14:00: Octocon has pointed out to me that a panel on the above was initially planned but fell through and that two panels I didn’t attend – Dystopia & YA and Space Opera included discussions on Rebellion.]

A Review of Linda Nagata’s ‘The Red’ Trilogy

I’ve been a fan of Linda Nagata’s work for quite a while.  A whole swathe of her novels came out in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s and I devoured them all eagerly.  The relentlessly strange first half of Vast (1998), the culmination of the loose tetralogy that had begun with The Bohr Maker (1995) is still one of the best things I’ve ever read.  Of course a new writer always has missteps – I found Deception Well (1997), the third of the tetralogy, to be an incoherent slog, redeemed only by the magnificent abseil down the skyhook and the second half of Vast, once the protagonists arrive, is a bit of a let-down after the thrill of the journey.  But there was always enough great stuff in her books to keep me interested.

So far as I could tell though, Nagata dropped off the map after about 2003, the year Memory came out, or at least my map, until I found a copy of The Red: First Light, the first book of an eponymous trilogy, earlier this year.  The blurb to that filled in the gaps – that she had gone big into self-publishing/e-publishing in the meantime.  No surprise then, that to an old-fashioned die hard like me, who still gauges a writer’s activity by what is in paper, on shelves, she should seem to have vanished. [UPDATE August 8th.: Via Twitter, Linda has told me that she did in fact give up writing for about ten years and having used self-publishing as a route back in, is gravitating back towards traditional publishing.]

The world of The Red: First Light, The Trials and Going Dark is a near future of technologically enhanced soldiers – Linked Combat Squads – operating in small, self-contained wars, where the battle lines between nation states, ‘dragons’ (oligarchs) and corporations, with their ‘mercs’ have become blurred.  Into this, emerges ‘The Red,’ a rogue AI which can manipulate situations, even to the point of hacking into some of these soldiers and using them for its own ends.

The focal point of the story is one such soldier, James Shelley whose journey goes from regular US army grunt, to quasi-secret agent for The Red, neutralising ‘existential threats’ with his squad.  Nagata’s great coup is to give The Red a consumerist corporate origin, implying that the primary goal of neutralising these threats is to benefit ‘the market’ and that saving the world for humanity at the same time is just happenstance.

The plot arc of the first two books focusses on tracking down rogue nuclear weapons, some of which are successfully used by a dragon to obliterate a lot of the Internet (through EMP) in an attempt to destroy The Red.  These are the two best books.  I found the third, Going Dark, weaker, possibly because with its by-line of ‘No real allies, no fixed enemies, no certain battlefields,‘ the reader is no longer certain of who or what they’re rooting for.  Of course this is a perfectly logical development of Nagata’s initial premise but it makes it harder for the reader to stay engaged.  And of course as a European, I might baulk at the ‘happy ending’ of Shelley’s last mission failing, thereby handing the means to control The Red to the US govt.

Nagata’s writing style has improved immeasurably since her early novels. What is really striking about the trilogy is the way the tautly wrought, narrow and rigorous world of military tech in which most of the story is set, is realised.  This is deeply impressive.  In fact it’s done so well that the parts set in the ‘real’ world with Shelley’s father and girlfriend Lissa are quite jarring; so much so that I cheered when Lissa became collateral damage at the end of book one.  Probably the author did not intend this!

If the trilogy has one drawback, it is that it’s full of coincidences.  These are explained away logically enough as the behind the scenes manipulations of The Red.  Nevertheless a few do seem over the top.  I particularly disliked the way that Delphi and Vasquez are dragged back into the narrative in book three through a totally random encounter in the Arctic, having been given an out with the heist at the end of book two.  Even once you concede that they’re part of the bigger story, Vasquez’s decision to return to military action seems unconvincing.

Overall though, these are small gripes in what is a superb story.  One hopes someone like HBO will snap it up and bring it to our screens.

 

 

A Review of Planetfall

I first became aware of Emma Newman at the Olympus convention a few years back; I was attending a panel she was on and she seemed to be talking more sense than all the rest up there with her put together; made me sit up and take notice and I’ve ‘followed’ her since.

A highlight so far was last year’s Octocon, where I got to sit in on a live Tea and Jeopardy and where she was interviewed and talked a lot about her upcoming Planetfall.  Now there’s a thing about me and new authors – considering starting on someone new, I’m like a hobo deciding where to invest his last nickel.  I’m picky, I know what I like and it takes a lot of time, a lot of critical mass for me to take the plunge.  Anyhow, Planetfall was that plunge moment for me.

I often read books concurrently and at the time Phillip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise was the bedtime doorwedge and slim, compact Planetfall became the travelling volume.  Both have a major character called Mack – which caused me no end of confusion. Don’t think I’ve ever had that happen to me before.

Anyhow, to Planetfall.  It’s an effortless read, beautifully written.  Some writers’ prose you just fly through (I always finish Christopher Priest’s books in two or three days) and this was right there with them.

The basic premise of the book is 2001 with plants instead of monoliths, leading to an expedition to colonise another world.  A succession of bad things happen in the early days of the colony; some colonists are lost and abandoned, presumed dead during the initial planetfall, then the leader of the expedition vanishes.  Cover ups for both of these events occur and then the colony gets on with the business of existing, next door to a strange organic ‘city.’

It’s a slow burner of a book that kicks into overdrive for the last quarter as the colony is simultaneously visited with a savage retribution and narrator Ren gets her transcendent David Bowman moment.  Ren is a brilliantly drawn character – part of the colony management and their 3D printing guru – she has an OCD that requires her to hoard stuff; the ultimate sin in a place where everything is 3D printed and waste needs to be assiduously recycled to feed the printers.  Emma Newman’s greatest coup in the book is to find the perfect McGuffin to fit; just what is lurking beneath the tons of hoarded junk that stuffs Ren’s home to the gills?

Planetfall has flaws, chief of which is that the other characters never really get to come out of Ren’s shadow.  One never really comprehends, for example, how Suh-mi was so charismatic as to attract people to follow her and to back and man the expedition in the first place.  Then the chief antagonist in the book, the returned wanderer Sung-soo, apart from being mind-bogglingly, relentlessly irritating, is such a clear existential threat to the colony that you really wonder why the previously ruthless Mack hasn’t printed a gun and shot him dead by chapter 20.  Is Mack trying to atone for past deeds or has he just gone soft; it’s never really clear.

The size of the colony is never really clear either; the events at the end of the book made it seem much larger than it had been, to me in my head up until that point.  It’s rather sketchily drawn too – I wondered about the apparent absence of young children to the point where I thought it might have plot importance; similarly there appears to be no functioning police force in a place that definitely needed one.

Planetfall is very much worth reading despite these flaws.  Ren is one of the great modern characters of SF and probably counts as one of the best OCD studies in all fiction, done with honesty and not a little humour.  The exploration of the scope and scale of 3D printing in this sort of expedition is bang up to date and right on the button.  The last quarter of the book, with the themes of retribution and transcendence really works too.

Jimgrim – the Palestine Years

Talbot Mundy (1879 – 1940) has long been one of my favourite writers and I suppose at this stage I must have read well over half his works.  What I’ve just finished, several years after starting, is the first part of his Jimgrim cycle, set in post-WWI Palestine and comprising the following stories:-

  • The Adventure at El-Kerak
  • Under the Dome of the Rock
  • The ‘Iblis’ at Ludd
  • The Seventeen Thieves of El-Kalil
  • The Lion of Petra
  • The Woman Ayisha
  • The Lost Trooper
  • The King in Check

The first two were later revised and collected as Jimgrim and Allah’s Peace, the second two were collected as Jimgrim and the Devil at Ludd, while the last is also known by the title The Affair in Araby.  All were serialised in the pulps in 1921-22 and reprinted in book form in the early 1930’s.

All told, they form a single narrative of some 1200 pages, in which Jimgrim and his crew (American adventurer Jeff Ramsden (the story’s narrator), Sikh policeman Narayan Singh and later ANZAC trooper Jeremy Ross) foil various plots by third parties (Zionists, the French etc.) to destabilise the region by pitting Arab against Jew or Arab contra Arab, with the backdrop of the slow reveal of Jimgrim’s overarching plan of trying to lay the groundwork for Feisul to become the king of a single Arab state encompassing Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia.

The story concludes with Jimgrim and his crew captured following the French assault (mustard gas and all) on Feisul in Damascus. They get packed off on boat out of Beirut and fetch up in Egypt where, while recuperating, they are made a proposition by multi-millionaire Meldrum Strange, as a result of which they quit the armed forces and become a sort of 1920’s A-Team.

The last part occurs at the beginning of the next volume, Jimgrim and a Secret Society, the first book of the second half of the cycle, that sees the gang battle ever more fantastical foes all across Egypt, India, Tibet and last but not least, in supervillain Dorje’s secret hideout in the Gobi Desert.

But that’s a story for another day.  Let’s return to Palestine and ask, just who is Jimgrim?  James Schuyler Grim is an American secret-service agent in the employ of the British armed forces in Palestine as a fixer.  Just how this arrangement came about is unclear but Mundy claims to have met the real ‘Jimgrim,’ on whom he based the character during his own time in Palestine, editing the English language Jerusalem News, as president of the Anglo-American Society of America.  Some modern blurb writers have characterised Jimgrim as a mix of Lawrence of Arabia, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and The Shadow.

Jimgrim is unquestionably one of the principal pulp-heroes of the 1920’s and it seems extraordinary that the character has never been the subject of any movies or TV series. Of course the Palestine setting of the early works may be deemed a little sensitive, especially given Mundy’s pro-Arab position but the historic background in the books seems impressively accurate, especially in setting out the duplicity towards Feisul on the part of the British and the French, following his support versus the Turks in WWI.

Mundy actually met Feisul during his time in Palestine and secured his permission to use him as a character in The King in Check.  The Jimgrim Palestine stories were widely read when first published and undoubtedly served to educate the reading public on the situation there.  More than that, there is still much for a modern reader to gain from them, in terms of understanding the root causes of what we still see unfolding in the Middle East today.