Friday, 27 December 2013

Film Ramble: Top 10 Fantasy and Science Fiction Films of 2013

'T'is the season to make comparative lists of things, so - not having read enough books to say anything useful on the subject - I thought I'd write up my favourite genre movies of the year.  These are in order, saving the best for last, and are of course every bit as arbitrary as a top ten list can be.  In fact, they're based on the ratings I gave each film when I saw them (because, yes, that's a thing that I do) so this doesn't even entirely reflect my current opinion, although I've juggled equal-scoring films around to put things more in line with my retrospective opinions.

Anyway, let's have at it...

10) How I Live Now

This partly makes the list because I suspect I'm the one person who actually saw it, and partly because I'm a sucker for British post-apocalypticness, and partly because I suspect Kevin McDonald is incapable of making a film I wouldn't like, but mainly because it was a great - if blatantly, undeniably flawed - movie.  I have no idea what the intended target audience was intended to be for a brutally violent, lovingly photographed YA World War Three sci-fi romance, but that doesn't mean it didn't deserve to be seen by at least someone.

9) The World's End

If the closing piece of Edgar Wright's Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy is arguably the weakest, it's a close run thing, and really its only significant misstep was to lose the perfect balance of genre and character elements that made the first two such classics.  The pay-off, though, is that this is the best acted of the three, the first to have characters that function primarily as characters rather than springboards for jokes, and for that reason, by far the most poignant.  Plus, what better note on which to end a trilogy defined by nostalgia - for friendships, movies, genres, fleeting youth - than to interrogate the whole notion of living in the past to within an inch of its life.

8) This is the End

Weird Hollywood synchronicity being weird Hollywood synchronicity, it's probably not that strange that we got two sci-fi apocalypse comedies at more or less the same time, but who would have thought that the Seth Rogen one would be funnier?  Or, for that matter, brilliant?  Definitely the most ridiculous thing I saw in a cinema all year, possibly the most fundamentally odd, and even if it had been terrible, the fantastic use (and abuse) of star cameos would have kept it afloat; as it is, Emma Watson going psycho or a coke-addled Michael Cera (or the bit with Channing Tatum that there's no way I'm going to spoil for anyone who hasn't seen it) are just the icing on the crazy cake.

7) After Earth

Yeah, I loved it.  But I won't try and defend that fact here because, hey, I wrote an entire blog post about it.

6) The Wolverine

James Mangold is, in possibly the nicest sense that the word can be used, a hack, and there was no reason to think when he took over on the The Wolverine from Darren Aronofsky that the end result would be anything other than good hack work.  And in fairness, that's sort of exactly what it is, but in spite of or maybe a little because of that fact The Wolverine turned out to be huge fun, and pretty damn close to what you'd hope a Wolverine movie to be, a prospect that seemed a slender hope indeed after Gavin Hood's lobotomized take on the character.*

5) Iron Man 3

2013 has been a year for odd comic book movies and the oddest of those was surely Iron Man 3.   Its structure could politely be described as broken, but that's largely because of Shane Black's determination to ignore or subvert every established rule of what these films are supposed to be.  It's rare to come out of a genre movie, let alone a movie belonging to that increasingly constricting genre that is the comic book film, feeling surprised, but Iron Man 3 offered some truly left field moments, and that Mandarin twist may not even have been the most shocking; for who'd have guessed that Black would have such a deft hand for directing gigantic action sequences?

4) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

How did they manage to make a popular, tent-pole movie this bleak?  The first half is absolutely unremitting, and then the killing starts.  And okay, its satire at its most heavy handed and brazen, but that doesn't make it less biting, and due credit for just how much it draws blood at the expense of just about every crisis in contemporary America.  But mostly this just kept me riveted for every moment of its two and a half hours, and especially in its slow-burning and yet completely gripping first half; if they'd managed to find an ending it might even have made the number one spot.

3) Life of Pi

Quite clearly a fantasy movie, (hey, try spending even ten minutes on a boat with a tiger and see how long you don't get eaten), and a wonderful one at that; I'm one of those people who never felt for a moment that Ang Lee had lost it, but it was still nice to see him return to the kind of esoteric yet critically and popularly acclaimed mainstream film-making that he's perhaps most famous for.  Life of Pi is at once huge and intimate, a character drama told with some of the most sophisticated tools known to humanity, and an examination of exactly what fantasy means and why we need it.  But who'd have guessed all those months ago that this wouldn't be the 2013 movie we remembered for redefining what was possible with CGI?

2) Gravity

Because that of course would be Gravity, which tore up the rule book for what CGI effects could do and then fired the scraps around the Earth at a zillion miles an hour.  For me, Gravity did all the things that Avatar was supposed to have achieved and didn't; it immersed me in an absolutely alien, absolutely convincing unreality and then proceeded to tell a great story there, whilst wowing me at a rate of roughly five times a minute with some new twist or shock or outrageously clever bit of artistry.

Even taking all of that into account, though, it was only when I saw Jonás Cuarón's short film tie-in Aningaaq that I really, truly fell in love with Gravity:

1) Frozen

I'm an unrepentant animation geek, I have unusually high tolerance for Disney movies, which for so many, many reasons I know I should despise on principle, I number Lilo and Stitch amongst my favourite films of all time, and for all that, if you'd asked me at the start of 2013 I would still never have guessed that this would have even made my top ten.  But here it is; Frozen is the best thing Disney have done in over a decade and the culmination of a decade's worth of earnest struggle to make their animation wing relevant once again; the year when their artistry finally equaled Pixar's and when their gender politics finally went from doubtful to progressive.  That aside, it does everything it tries to do tremendously well, and the 3 minutes and 39 seconds that are the "Let it Go" sequence are my favourite filmic 3 minutes and 39 seconds of the last twelve months.

Also this teaser trailer is pretty great:

* That said, Hood's surprisingly good take on Ender's Game came close to making the list, so maybe one day he can be forgiven.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Research Corner #4: WW1 Reading Pt 1

Quite a novel Research Corner, this one, in that it's the first one in which I'll be talking about something that anyone other than me might actually consider research.  No visits to Moroccan tanneries, then, and in fact no holidaying whatsoever, just me tearing through a whole pile of books as if my life depended on it.

So here's a little information about the reading that's going into my nascent historical sci-fi novel, currently going by the working title of To End All Wars.  Due to my habit of going at numerous books at the same time and so still having most of my reading on the go, this isn't actually that impressive a list, but I'm sure I'll do a part 2 at some point.

Regeneration by Pat Barker

Up until recently I was describing To End All Wars to anyone who'd listen as "Regeneration meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind", and I only gave it up when I realised just how few people had heard of Pat Barker's 1991 masterpiece.  I'll happily admit that Regeneration - which charts the real-life period during 1917 when Siegfried Sassoon was treated by army psychologist W. H. R. Rivers, amongst other cases of WW1 fall-out - is a huge influence on what I'm hoping to do.  I've a tendency to be a bit sniffy about literary fiction, in some kind of weird inverse snobbery, but Regeneration makes its way easily into my all-time top ten, and it was a joy to have an excuse to re-read it.

Over the Top: Great Battles of the First World War by Martin Marix Evans

A bit of a let down, this one, despite the author's marvelous middle name.  It's possible that writing about war is liking dancing about ice-fishing, but it's definitely true that writing a book about battles without lots and lots of pictures and diagrams leaves the reader with a headache and not much else.

It occurred to me after I watched the film of Catch 22 that it only made sense if you'd read the book, which in turn made a great deal more sense for having watched the film.   I'm starting to think that something similar goes for WW1 texts; the overview stuff like this is dry and fussy if you haven't read anything told from a soldier's point of view, which in turn gives little sense of the wider war unless you happen to know a bit about what battles happened when and where and why.

 Loos 1915 by Peter Doyle

One of the main aims of my research-a-thon has been to establish just when and where the opening sequences of To End All Wars can be set without breaking history too badly.  There was a point where I was almost convinced that it would end up being the lesser known battle of Loos, hence my spending £10 on a hardback history book.  Doyle's work does a great job of setting up the back-story to the battle and then falls down a little once the actual fighting kicks off, for much the same reasons as Over the Top.  In fact, strangely, it works much better as an overview of the first half of the war than as an insight into the one particular battle that it's supposed to be about.

Either way, it convinced me that Loos was no use whatsoever for my purposes, so I suppose it was £10 well spent.

True Stories of the First World War by Paul Dowswell

This was a present from Jobeda, and - despite the slightly trashy implications of the title - turned out to be a bit of a treat.  It's short at 132 pages of largish print and its focus it relatively narrow, but for the kind of anecdotal history it is, it's told with a surprising degree of insight and outrage, and ended up being quite a good introductory-level overview.  In fact, I suspect that sticking with more traditional histories would have left a hole in my reading, since True Stories takes for its focus some of the less widely discussed events and aspects of the war.  A good, fun (as far as the word can possibly apply) jumping off point, then, for anyone with a loose interest in WW1 wondering where to go next, or perhaps a good Christmas present for a curmudgeonly grandparent.

Flanders by Patricia Anthony

My other trek into fiction-reading as research, coupled with an interest in seeing whether anyone else had taken a serious stab at WW1 genre fiction (that being how Flanders seems to be classified) - and though not quite the stunner that Regeneration is, Anthony's book still pretty much blew my socks off.  It's a gorgeous, grotesque, meandering, intricately detailed novel describing one US volunteer's experiences on the Western Front, as well as his visions of a beatific yet purgatorial afterlife - this being, presumably, why the book was released under a genre imprint, though it's a pretty damn tenuous classification if you ask me.

Anyway, I seriously recommend this, whether you're interested in the war or not, though good luck finding a version with a cover that wasn't Photoshopped together by an eight year old.*

World War One: A Short History by Norman Stone

 Of the overview histories, this is the best I've found so far, a solid and comprehensive look at the war that's short and easy to digest for the amateur scholar or lazy, half-arsed novelist both.

That said, there isn't a lot else I have to say about it.  Um ... I like the cover image.  But shouldn't the horse have a gas mask too?  Or, you know, not be on a battlefield in the first place.  (All else aside, good luck finding a successful cavalry charge anywhere in the annals of World War One.) 

Damn it, thinking about this has reminded of me of what an awful film War Horse was.  Let's move on, shall we?

One Man's War: Letters From a Soldier Killed at the Battle of Loos by Harold Chapin

Obviously part of the point of this post is that some of these books will appeal to people who aren't studying WW1 or planning to write a novel set during it.  Of the ones that fall into that category, I'd recommend this to almost everyone.  It does what it says on the tin, it costs seventy seven pence* and, Chapin being a playwright, it's a beautiful bit of writing that's by turns fascinating and heart breaking.  These are Chapin's letters to his wife, mother, mother in law and infant son, and out of those you can guess which ones tend to leave you choking up the most.  (Hint: it's not the ones to his mother-in-law.)

* This is the least awful one I could find, and it's still pretty damn awful.

** Which, thinking about it, seems a little cheeky since - aside from a very minimal introduction - this is entirely the work of someone who clearly won't be seeing a penny from it, (the clue to that fact being in the title.)  Still, profiteering from the work of war casualties aside, it's not a lot of money.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Book Review: The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself

Truth be told, I was disappointed with Ian Sales's sophomore novella, The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself.  It would have had to be pretty amazing to feel like a worthy successor to Ian's BSFA award winning debut Adrift on the Sea of Rains, which I praised effusively on this selfsame blog a while back.  And, as I read it, I found it to be merely very good.  Harsh criticism indeed!

I'd have been fine with writing it off as that, too, for good as Ian is - and he's annoyingly good - you don't get to produce two masterpieces in a row, do you?


Well, my brain keeps going back to it.  Both to the clever, maybe too clever but definitely very clever mystery at its heart - which is in fact the entire story, and then some - and, perhaps more satisfyingly, to the emotional kick that it spends fifty or so pages winding up, so slowly you don't quite see it coming.  I'm a sucker for hidden people-stories, stories that keep their human element close to their chests until you realize that, hey, this isn't just about science (or fantasy, or crime, or...) it's about how human relationships are (or aren't) sustained within the climes of those genres.  My own best effort in that direction was up at Clarkesworld recently, and it's frustrating to admit that The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself probably does a slightly better job of exactly what I was going for there, is in fact a hidden people-story par excellence ... a love story of sorts, and a lovely, mature, perceptive and ultimately brutal one at that. 

That aside, The Eye With Which... does the things that Ian is rightly developing a reputation for, and does them more or less as well as you'd hope.  This is hard, hard science fiction, grounded in the grubby danger and endless minutiae of the real US space program and then extrapolated with wit and verve.  It's excellently written, carefully composed, bold in its use and abuse of the limitations of the novella format, (who else devotes a seventh of their book to a glossary, and then hides half of their plot in it?), and - something which perhaps doesn't get quite enough attention - beautifully put together and presented.

I'm still not convinced that The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself is the equal of its predecessor, but I've also come to the conclusion that it's more than just very good.  Ian is doing something genuinely fascinating with his Apollo Quartet, and I'm intrigued to see how it all works out.

Monday, 2 December 2013

December, Where It's At...

The problem with planning is that plans sometimes need to change, and it's tough not to feel a little bad when that happens.  Especially if you're perhaps a bit too much of a planner, like I am; if you are, indeed, slightly OCD in setting yourself targets and sticking to them as if life, the universe and everything depended on it.

I mention this as a roundabout way of saying that until I few days ago I was planning to start my new novel today, and now I'm not.  And I feel a little bad about it. But I probably shouldn't, because not starting it is the right thing to do.  I should, in fact, be feeling pretty good about making the right decision.  So here's a blog post where I get to convince myself of that.

As I've hinted at more than once, but perhaps never explicitly said, I've burned myself out quite badly over the last couple of years; writing full time around full time work took a toll on my health, and by the time I walked away from the day job I was more than ready to drop.  I'm glad to say that things are now much better - as you'd hope they would be after six weeks of relative peace and quiet - but they're still not quite better enough that I feel ready to wade into the demands of a new novel.

And the new novel is going to be demanding.  That's the other thing I've realised over the last few weeks.  The First World War is not a subject you can approach lightly.  My preliminary research, of which I've done a fair bit, has only made me realise how much damn research I'm going to need to do to get anywhere near the level of understanding and technical accuracy I need to do this book justice.  Which turns out to be revelation / difficulty number two: I'm going to need to try and do it justice. There's nothing like reading the diaries of decent men who died horribly to sharpen the mind on that latter score; I really don't want to be the guy who writes a lousy, trivializing book about the First World War.

All of which means that December is now research month the second, and also rest month the second, because I want to be fighting fit when I go at this thing.  It's also the second month of my return to short story writing, which is yet another reason why putting the novel back a little feels like the right thing to do, because getting back into short story writing has been ridiculously fun; short fiction is always going to be my first love as a writer, and I've missed the hell out of it.  I've already written a sequel to the (recently published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies) Ill-Met at Midnight, and I'm currently getting into what was supposed to be a short story but appears to be becoming a novelette titled "War of the Rats", set in ... um ... well, in WW1 actually, because I might not be ready to write a novel yet, but I've been itching to put some of my new-found knowledge to use.  Oh, and I've promised Lavie Tidhar a story.  But the less said about that the better.

So that's December.  January, meanwhile, is absolutely goddamn set in stone as 'starting new novel month.'   So if there's another post here in a month's time explaining why I haven't got down to it then please do me a favour and come find me and kick my arse.