Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Research Corner #5: WW1 Reading Pt 2

As promised, I've been plowing on with the To End All Wars research, and not only that but I've been drifting into some decidedly odd waters, not to mention finding an excellent excuse to catch up with some of the TV watching I've missed these last few years.  Without further ado...

Death's Men by Denis Winter

Probably the best of the non-fiction books I've read, and certainly the best of the non-fiction books I've read that deal specifically with the war, Winters' text is a perfect combination of authorial presence and carefully selected first-hand material; as an author he often drops away entirely from his own text, before bouncing back with such a wonderfully judged observation that you want to hug him for it.  More often, though, I found myself being tremendously grateful for his being the one author who didn't at least passingly assume that I'd actually served through the First World War and was just refreshing my memory.  For a work of such depth, it's nothing short of amazing that he thought to cover such necessary basics as the make-up of British army units and just exactly how a trench was supposed to be built.

Complete Memoirs of George Sherston by Siegfried Sassoon

Complete on this occasion meaning three volumes and some six hundred pages, and its worth pointing out that the first of those volumes has barely a  thing to do with the war but an awful lot to do with Sassoon's interest in fox hunting and, to a lesser extent, cricket.  So if I tell you that there are no two subjects on earth I less want to know about, and then that I'm really glad I stuck with this, you'll perhaps get a sense of what an interesting, charming and - I think the precise word I'm looking for is companionable - writer Sassoon is.  He's just an entertaining guy to spend time with is what I'm saying, and his memoirs are a fascinating insight into first a vanished way of life and then the war that eradicated it.

Of course, if you're only interested in the war then it's possibly advisable to skip that first volume, although I can't help thinking you'd lose a lot of Sassoon's thematic curve by doing so.  (Of course, it's equally possible I'm only saying that because I suffered through it and so you should too.)

A Nurse at the Front: The First World War Diaries of Sister Edith Appleton, ed. by Ruth Cowen

Diaries are a mixed bag when it comes to source material, what with that natural human inclination to write about any old rubbish when they think no one's looking, but Edith Appleton was good enough to produce exactly the sort of diary that people find interesting and useful a century later.  She offers a terrific insight into WW1 nursing, into the war itself, and perhaps best of all, into the psychology of just what it was like to endure the almost unimaginable horror that she lived through and tried, with a startling amount of human decency, to mend in whatever ways she could.  And, unlike the last war diary I read, this one is accompanied by plenty of footnotes, photos and supplementary material to go some way towards justifying the price tag.

Downton Abbey Series 1

It was actually season 2 I wanted to watch, the bits where Downton gets turned into an officers' convalescence home being too perfectly suited to my needs to miss, but it seemed masochistic not to work my way up to that point via series 1 - and I'm glad I did.  Sure, I have some bones to pick with Julian Fellowes's attempt to convince us all that early-C20th toffs were damnably lovely people and that early-C20th servants were treated with decency and respect rather than, say, cruelty and contempt, but you know what?  This is still great telly, with superb production values.  And as a whistlestop tour of the years leading up to the outbreak of the war, it was actually quite a help from a research point of view as well. 

But say what you like about it, it still wasn't a patch on...


...which, as someone who doesn't watch a great deal of TV, was pretty much a revelation.  Seriously. is this what they're doing these days?  Making subtle, challenging three hour programs with the production values of a mid-sized Hollywood production.  Things sure have come on a long way since Byker Grove, that's for sure.

Oh god, I feel old now. 

Anyway, I've no idea how this holds up against the book, which I guess I probably should read, but regardless I enjoyed the hell out of it.  Nice, too, that they didn't try to sugarcoat the blood and guts (as I'll surely be bitching about Downton Abbey Season 2 doing in the next of these posts.)  Just a shame about the shonky CGI battlefields, but you can't have it all...

Conflict and Dreams by W. H. R. Rivers

Yes, that W. H. R. Rivers!  The dude who treated Siegfried Sassoon!  Like what happened in Regeneration!  They even made a movie of it and everything!

So anyway, I said the research was taking me down some odd avenues, and this is indeed a book of essays on the psychology of dreams (with, unsurprisingly, an emphasis on conflict.)  As such, not an easy one to recommend to the casual reader, and you'll probably have to take my word for it when I say that it was actually really fascinating.

On a side note, this whole research binge is making me more and more cynical about the publishing industry, since (as you can tell from that "we're just not even pretending to try" cover) this is blatantly a public domain essay print-on-demanded into life and then slapped with a seven pound price tag.  But maybe that's a moan for another time...

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Film Ramble: Phase IV

Phase IV was the feature debut of famed title sequence director Saul Bass - and since there aren't many people in the history of the human race who could justify being described as "famed title sequence director," it's worth adding that Bass, in his day job, was responsible for some of the most iconic imagery in film history.  What springs to mind when you think of Vertigo?  If it's the legendary title sequence or that inspired poster then it's Bass's work you're remembering, not Hitchcock's.  And as well as Hitchcock, Bass was the designer of choice for directors like Preminger, Wilder, Kubrick and Scorsese

But he only ever directed one feature film himself, and for that, he chose to make ... well, what is Phase IV exactly?  In its crudest terms, it's the story of a tiny handful of humans - two at first and then three - battling super-intelligent ants in the American desert.  Which makes it sound like THEM! or possibly Tremors, two films it has almost nothing in common with.  It most certainly isn't a horror movie, though it has horror elements, and though it is a science-fiction movie, it's one far more absorbed with scientific process than technology or big ideas.  In fact, through it's three distinct chapters it skips genre quite unapologetically, as the scale of the threat metamorphoses from "gee, these ants sure are getting feisty", through "gee, these ants are putting up a much better fight than you'd expect from, you know, ants," to ... well, that would be a spoiler, and to spoil Phase IV would be a shame, because amongst its many virtues are that it absolutely isn't like the film you're imaging if you haven't seen it and that it resolutely refuses to go to the places you're expecting even while you watch it.

None of which makes it any easier to describe, or to explain why it is absolutely one of the best and most under-rated science fiction films of the seventies, which as anyone who knows anything knows was the undisputed heyday for smart, ideas-based sci-fi.  But perhaps the problem in describing it is Phase IV's greatest virtue; I can't think of another film where every single element is so subtly off-kilter, or where that perpetual, muted strangeness serves the film's ends so perfectly.

Watching it for perhaps the sixth time, though, what struck me even more forcefully is the film's lack of bias: we spend as much time with the ants - courtesy of some astonishing, how-the-hell-did-they-do-that? miniature shots and model work - as we do with the humans, watching their plans, their organization, all the minutiae of their minute existence.  Some critics have suggested that a problem with the film is that we're never quite convinced of the ant threat, (they are, after all, just plain old normal-sized ants), but returning to it I can't help thinking that that's entirely deliberate.  Phase IV is not an invasion movie.  It's something closer to a faux-documentary, an aliens-eye view of a conflict in which humanity is but one side and - as personified by Nigel Davenport's fun portrayal of unbounded scientific hubris - not necessarily the one we should be rooting for.

In fact all of the film's immediate flaws - a wide-eyed performance from Lynne Frederick, the methodical pace, the fact that much of the filming was clearly sound stage-bound - become virtues by the end, when we come to appreciate just what it is we've been watching, and that it was never merely a tale of heroic scientists battling eeeeevil super-intelligent bugs.  And the rest of its virtues are plain to see from the beginning: the unique, unsettling score, mixing guitar and electronica in a way that still feels current, the superlative insect photography, Bass's gloriously stylized direction and design aesthetic, and Mayo Simon's sparse script, which gives us exactly the information we need and not one word more.

So what is Phase IV?  It's the absolutely definitive super-intelligent-ants-against-humanity pseudo-documentary art-house sci-fi movie, that's what ... and if that really isn't enough to make you want to see it then here's the trailer:

You can pick up the region 1 DVD (sadly there's never been a region 2 release) on Amazon here, at a currently very reasonable price.  And lastly, for those who've already seen it, a couple of treats I discovered today: a link to the book adaptation and the original - very trippy, much less ambiguous - ending, cut after baffled test audiences ran screaming indifferently from the cinema:

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Auditory Self-Indulgence, Part 2

I think I've accumulated enough retrospect by now to say that my favourite thing about the Easie Damasco trilogy and their publication is that they ended up as three wonderful Brilliance Audio audiobooks that I then got to listen to.

Because, yes, I listened to the audiobooks of my own novels.  Wouldn't you?  The thing is, if your books get made into audiobooks then, if you close your eyes, (and admittedly this isn't such a good idea in rough parts of town or while driving in heavy traffic), you get to imagine that someone's made a film of them, or at the very least put on an energetic stage adaptation.  You get to experience them in a whole new way, through new eyes, and in a new voice, a voice that makes the weaker bits seem entirely decent and the good bits seem completely brilliant.

At least, that's my experience.  It may have a lot to do with the fact that I was lucky enough to get James Langton reading, and that James Langton is absolutely marvelous at this sort of thing.  By the end of Prince Thief, I was in awe of the range of accents he'd pulled off over the course of three books, (and the fact that not one of them ended up sounding ridiculous), the fact that he put meat on the bones of even minor characters, made major characters seem like real people, and in particular brought scoundrelly, possibly-just-slightly-loveable rogue Easie Damasco to life in a way I'd never have dreamed possible.

I guess what I'm saying, in a roundabout way, is that what James did wasn't just reading but acting; he literally, single-handedly acted out three books and dozens of characters, and that's just plain astonishing.  I'm very glad I got to be the author of those three books, and that I then got to listen to James's take on them; it was a pleasure from the beginning of Giant Thief to the end of Prince Thief, and I'm not sure I'll ever get quite so lucky with a reader again.  Many thanks to James and to the people at Brilliance who made it happen, not to mention the Angry Robot guys for putting the whole thing together in the first place.

Lastly ... I couldn't possibly pick a favourite character from the trilogy, but I think it would be okay to pick a favourite from the audio adaptations.  And if I did it would surely be Malekrin, the sort-of-star of Prince Thief.  There wasn't a single character I felt James got wrong, but Malekrin would have been awfully easy to mess up and James absolutely didn't: he captured all of Malekrin's early, youthful frustration and - let's face it! - total obnoxiousness, and then conveyed his growing pains across the course of the book, ending in a climatic scene that played out just the way it had in my head and got me a little bit emotional. 

Which would have been all well and good had I not been walking down the high street of my grim northern home town.  Still, I'm sure it's not the first time the good folk of Batley have seen a grown man get a little teary over the audiobook performance of a character he wrote.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

To End All Wars: Month 1

I promise I'm not going to do a post for every month of new novel To End All Wars, because that would be hugely boring to read and hugely boring for me to write, especially given that all the ones after this would basically be along the lines of "Hey, I just wrote a load more of To End All Wars."  I seem to remember doing something like that with as-yet-to-be-finished second novel War For Funland and it wasn't a whole load of fun.  But getting the first month of a new book under your belt is a thing, right?

Plus, there's a wider significance to the fact that January has gone well (which it has), and that's that it was my first month of writing full time.  It's taking a degree of figuring out, because - and it took me a little while even to realise this - I've effectively started a new job, and there's always a learning curve with that.  In these particular circumstances, the learning curve involves working out just how much I should be doing and when and in what order, what breaks to take and of what duration, just how much coffee it's sensible to consume in one day, whether half past nine at night is an entirely sensible to time to be knocking off and, oh, stuff like that.  I'm guessing this will all sound familiar to anyone who's taken the leap into self-employment: suddenly I'm my own boss and I have to decide what amounts to a reasonable day's (or month's, or year's) work, and also to take the flack if it doesn't get done or turns out not to be enough.

But that sounds negative, and it hasn't been at all a negative experience so far, so let's concentrate on the good stuff.  I met my target for To End All Wars, which is 20'000 a month at a rate of 5000 words a week, and as I hoped it wasn't at all a stretch; the only time I came close to struggling was when the research got a bit wacky and out of hand, as discussed last week.  Of course 5000 words a week isn't a huge amount, in fact it's about what I was doing on Crown Thief and Prince Thief around full time work, so as hoped I got a load of other stuff done too; much WW1-related reading, a new short story of a little under 7000 words, much redrafting and assorted other odds and sods.  It's still not what I'd like to be managing, but it's enough at least to prove to myself I have the discipline I need to make this full-time writing thing worthwhile.

As for To End All Wars - which I seem to remember suggesting this post was about - well, it feels good so far.  I'm deeply immersed in WW1 history and getting deeper with each passing day, and I have an excuse to watch Downton Abbey that isn't "everyone else in the country is watching it so probably I should too."  I don't know how I'd have written it around a job, though.  Those two months I set aside for planning and research are really paying off now; it's a hell of a reassurance to have a solid plan and some sound knowledge of the period to fall back on.

In short, I'm a sixth of the way in and right now it feels like one sixth of the book I'd hoped to write, which by coincidence is just what I'd have hoped to be saying at this point.