Sunday, 30 June 2013

Film Ramble: After Earth

I feel like I should say something nice about After Earth.  Or at least that someone should.  Because I think it's one of the better science fiction films I've seen of late, and yet there it is on Rotten Tomatoes, sitting at time of writing with a measly 11%.  What's with that?

So if he's stranded on Earth, what's that in the background?
I have some theories.  The critical knives have been kept sharp for Shyamalan for years - justifiably so on occasions, it has to be said - and it's hard to imagine what he could do now to assuage some of his haters beyond giving up film-making once and for all.  Equally, it's hard not to view Jaden Smith's casting in a film conceived, produced by and starring his dad as a blatant bit of Hollywood nepotism.

It's tricky to argue that second one, though Smith Jr is hardly as bad as some reviewers have made out.  Shyamalan, though, I'm happy to defend.  He's always intrigued me, both as a director and as a writer: in an industry defined by formula, he makes artistic choices that I don't always agree with, but that constantly surprise.  One early example from After Earth is a major action sequence filmed as reaction shot: Will Smith's heroic general Cypher Raige* stares impassively as a potentially deadly asteroid storm hammers the ship that carries him and his son Kitai.  If this was Michael Bay, there'd be retina-burning explosions, bodies flying, meteoric point of view shots.  Shyamalan gives us little of that: he fills half his frame with Smith's face and keeps it there.  And as the scene continues, as Cypher impassively confronts death, it becomes more and more apparent that this isn't just bravery ... there's something wrong with this guy.  He may be fearless, and that's handy when you happen to be fighting an alien race that hunts by fear, but he's also pretty damn screwed up.

It's a brave artistic choice to substitute a character moment for thrills; one that will lose some viewers early on, but also one that pays dividends as After Earth progresses.  Both of its protagonists, father and son, are reeling from emotional tragedy: the death of Kitai's sister at the stabby claws of one of those aforementioned aliens, which each failed in their own way to stop.  Neither of them are dealing with it too well, either.  Cypher has become the emotional vacuum that his name suggests, while Kitai is in equal parts trying to become his father and despising him for failing the family.  Where in a lesser film this sort of back story might be window dressing, in After Earth it's integral, and the damage these characters have endured is approached with respect.

It's easy to view the action that forms the bulk of the film - wherein Kitai treks across a hostile, long-abandoned future Earth while his injured father stays behind and instructs him by remote - as traditional Hollywood father / son bonding. They hang out, argue, eventually each learn something and mutual tolerance ensues. But what Shyamalan and co-screenwriter Gary Whitta do is ultimately more satisfying than that.  In the wild, Kitai is as separated from his father by technology as he is emotionally, their flawed technological dependency becoming a deft metaphor for their fractured relationship.  Each has a perspective the other lacks and neither sees the whole picture, as much as they may believe they do.  Blind spots lead to small deceptions that have devastating consequences.  As the dangers worsen, both technology and communication fail them altogether.  Kitai finds himself alone, facing the same alien threat that his father once did.  He knows dad survived, and he knows what it did to him.  Is that a path he really wants to follow?

And that's the crux of After Earth: not so much father / son bonding as a meditation on parenthood itself, and of what such a relationship demands of both parties.  How do you keep your kids safe without dooming them to making the same mistakes that you've made?  Is it possible to pass on the benefits of experience without inflicting the wounds that taught it in the first place?  What do you do when you realize your parents aren't perfect, that maybe not everything they've told you is right, and how are you meant to know what to keep and what to leave?  Being stranded on a deadly future Earth is tough, but so is outgrowing adolescence, and so is realizing you're kind of screwed up and learning to trust your son - and for my money it's to After Earth's credit that it gives all of those problems equal weight.

Which isn't to say that After Earth is without its flaws, by any means.  Its pacing is off in places, particularly towards the start, parts of it flat out don't work, and many will find its core man-against-the-wilds story simple and old-fashioned, as it undoubtedly is.  I enjoyed both the central performances and Shyamalan's methodical, uncluttered direction, but I can understand why many won't.  Still, to my mind, it's at least a movie that's genuinely about stuff, when so often theme is just another tick box on the screenwriter's list.  And - perhaps the main reason I'm championing it here - it's also great fun as science fiction, with a pleasing mix of the borderline plausible, such as the subtle ways in which Earth's environment and fauna have developed in the absence of humanity, and the endearingly mad.  I mean, bamboo spaceships, anyone?  Frankly, if nothing else I've said here is enough to convince you that After Earth might be worth a roll then that right there should do it.

* One thing I won't ever be trying to defend is Shyamalan's character naming.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Living Dead Lives On

John Joseph Adams's anthology The Living Dead was beyond a doubt my first taste of being a professional writer.  In fact, it possibly set the bar a little high for what was to follow.  What could be more of a dream come true for a novice writer to see their story nestled between tales by Clive Barker and Joe Hill and in the same TOC as Stephen King and George R R Martin, or to be in a book that would go on to be so hugely successful, critically acclaimed and award nominated, and arguably end up being the definitive compilation for an entire sub genre?

I'd been wondering what was to come of The Living Dead after original publisher Night Shade's much-publicized troubles, so it was welcome news when John got in touch to let me know that it would be shambling on under the auspices of Orbit, in UK e-book edition at least, and with a striking new cover to boot.

If you have the faintest interest in zombie fiction or good horror stories in general, The Living Dead is definitely one of the best anthologies I've read, let alone been in.  You can find the new edition here on Amazon, and here's a post on the Orbit site where some of the contributors - myself included - say a little about where these stories came from.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Lost in Translation

 Everything automatically becomes ten times more entertaining when read in bad translation, even reviews of your own books.  I know this to be true because I spent an hour on the train yesterday reading what German readers made of Giant Thief - or rather Im Schatten der Giganten - as filtered through the distorting lens of Google Translate.  

The good news is that German readers seem to have mostly taken to Giant Thief.  The bad news is that it's hard to be entirely, one hundred percent sure.  Take for instance this, from Whisperleaf's Fantasy Blog: "However, I must say that the book is written with so much sarcasm and irony of easie that you have to like him easy.   I think I've never been convinced already on the very first page of the book and the character had to read with a smile on his lips, already here!"  

That sounds like praise, right?  And the same goes for a review at Readme: "Easie Damasco is the "most compelling hero since Captain Jack Sparrow," as the back cover claims? Yes, he is. At least. Because, the reader set of the images supplied by the pirate movie sight "In the Shadow of the Giants" all by himself in the head. Even more colorful and devious than anything that could have come from the Caribbean."  

If it makes a second edition, that last line should totally be the cover blurb!  

Sadly, not everyone was quite so taken with Damasco and his first adventure.  Captain Fantastic, for example, gave Giant Thief a scowly pirate face and seemed to feel particularly let down but the action scenes: "Remain always the possibility that our fast-paced action is offered here, the Sword & Sorcery friends would satisfy at least. But easie is just not a fighter (even if the cover suggests the German). His biggest fight of action is to occur on someone's foot, otherwise he hides or runs away."  And Horror Bee, reviewing at Armarium Nostrum, also has his reservations: "The book has scary potential, but is it for me for a book too superficial.  Maybe draws Tallerman this potential in subsequent volumes of yes."

Well, it's hard to argue with that.  Still, let's end on a high note; most positive of all the reviews I found - if, thanks to Google Translate, also the least comprehensible - is this, from Fantasybuch: "Wants all in all, the reader gets from David Tallermans "In the Shadow of the Giants" an exciting Verfolgungsjad throughout the Castovall offered with its own distinct hierarchy and nature of the giants, a cruel generals, the world as it was, change and a shrewd thief comes with a lot of skill and flair from bad to worse and must draw its own lessons from the events. A book, perfectly suited to brighten the day."

Sunday, 9 June 2013

And the Rest

The week before last I tried, and just about managed, to take a holiday in Malta.  Over the past few years, holiday had tended to mean "writing in a different place", or "writing without the day job", neither of which is that close to the dictionary definition.  This time I wanted to get as close to actually stopping work - even fun work - as I could.  In the end, that wound up as maybe thirty minutes a day on my graphic novel C21st Gods, probably the least time I've put in since the Angry Robot deal began two and a half years ago.

And what do you know?  It did me good.  Not just from a getting a rest and a (very slight) tan point of view, either.  I saw interesting things.  I talked to interesting people.  I learned stuff.  My brain got to slip the rails for a few days.  And out of all of that, I began to think about old subjects in new ways.

Obviously in its heyday there would have been a lot more dead people.
For example: St Paul's Catacombs.  Two square kilometers worth of spooky underground tunnels that the Maltese heritage trust is nice enough to let you wander around to your heart's content, with only an audio guide to keep you company.  But it's a really good audio guide, and one of the things it points out repeatedly is that, dark and dank as these rows and avenues of tombs might be in the present, in their heyday they would have been brightly painted, incense-scented places, where relatives would eat lavish meals and celebrate the lives of their lost loved ones.  It takes a real leap of imagination to see those dark stone passages as they must once have been, but once you do, you can't go back; suddenly, what was grim and morbid has become a celebration of life.

Anyway, just an example ... there were plenty more that I won't bore you with.  I thought a lot about archeology, about ancient civilizations and how people might have lived and why, about how perhaps the findings of historians don't always mesh that well with our actual experience of how human beings function and behave - and ultimately, how all of that can feed into how I go about imagining fictitious cultures and characters and places.  Because I could have written a creepy catacomb without a visit to St Paul's easily enough, and I could have imagined a culture that buried their dead in said creepy catacomb, but I'm not sure it would have ever occurred to me to written a homely, decorative catacomb where people took the kids for a night out.

In the end, my time in Malta ended up being a nice reminder of why I've spent my entire adult life wanting to write for a living; of how much it's my way of finding a useful place for my curiosity and fascination with trying to figure out how things work.  Who'd have thought?  Sometimes not writing is good for your writing.