M. John Harrison – The Centauri Device (1975) Review

The centauri device

The Centauri Device is one of those books that had a huge impact on the development of science fiction as a genre, but it is relatively obscure and unread. Even the author, M. John Harrison, let it be known that he despised his own novel, so that’s quite the endorsement (no worries, I will tell you now that it is worth reading).

What it did, however, was pave the way for a revitalization of space opera. According to Harrison, he wanted to write an “anti-space opera”, breaking with the conventions of the day. What he came up with was a very bleak universe in which humanity isn’t the center of existence and a lowlife protagonist who had no real influence on the course of the story. At the time when Stephen R. Donaldson had a cantankerous leper starring in the epic fantasy The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (1977), Harrison did the same in science fiction.

What he came up with, was a seed that would germinate into new subgenres. Harrison’s novel forms a bridge between the frantic, proto-cyberpunk of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1957), and the later emergence of actual cyberpunk, and finally the space opera revival; especially Iain M. Banks, who took some inspiration from it and Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series which, in a similar way, combines cyberpunk elements with a bleak, nihilistic universe that doesn’t care about human destiny.

But know what you get yourself into: this book is so grim and gritty that it turns into satire. It is almost like a big joke on the genre. The protagonist John Truck is convinced to see himself as a loser, and everything in the novel is about how sad and rundown the future is. Truck is irredeemable too, exerts no agency and the whole plot disintegrates into a nihilistic climax. I am actually convinced that this is a big joke by Harrison. He went out of his way to make this future aggravating and disappointing, slipping into exaggeration while doing so. The two powers of the future, for example, are the Israeli World Government and the United Arab Socialist Republics, and so religion and politics never moved on and are tired, wretched affairs in this future. I don’t think he meant all this to be taken at face value but as exaggeration.

But Harrison made the mistake of writing it too well and at the right moment, and now it is considered a classic, so the final joke is on him.

He populates his universe with quite interesting characters. There’s the creepy Dr. Grishkin with his implants, and the stoned, devious king of the party, Veronica, and many others. There is a charm to the grimy underworld and seedy port cities John Truck moves through; a charm that has been utilized since forever in hardboiled noir fiction.

And over all this lies Harrison’s unique prose. Harrison is the guy that other famous SF authors look up to. He can be very sharp, witty and cryptic at the same time. Harrison is more interested in describing how things are experienced instead of what is factually happening. He would describe a fight between space ships as insects unfolding their wings and hanging in space like spiders.

“[the ship] burst out of the dyne-fields like a morbid comet, rolling belly-up and launching volleys of torpedoes at nothing they could see, her stern consuming itself in pale feverish radiance. Great rents had opened up along her length, her bow was an agonized mouth; her golden fins were bent and charred, her turrets melted stubs. She plummeted down on them in a fog of blind murder […]”

He is very precise in describing how something feels, but he uses analogies to get there, and so he creates a tension of multiple interpretations where it sometimes isn’t clear what happened and leaves it up to the reader to interpret it. Harrison is too clever a writer to do this by mistake; he just chooses the language of impressions.

There is a crude commentary on ideologies in the novel that is very much a part of the 1970s. What I thought was exaggeration was actually part of an argument that Harrison was making. John Truck is a loser, not even having the drive to be an anarchist, and Harrison makes very clear what he was thinking of ideologies at the time through Truck’s apathy. The novel may have inspired many future authors, but this commentary wasn’t copied along with the noir punkish atmosphere. It makes The Centauri Device feel like a product of its time, together with the numerous appearances of drugs.

It sure takes a lot of context to understand why this book is the way it is. But I still found it very easy to like, despite all that. I laughed, felt the atmosphere and was impressed with Harrison’s writing. It has memorable characters, wry humor and is written in sparkling prose. Still, if Harrison’s prose doesn’t do anything for you and the counter-culture of the 70s alienates you, and you don’t like metaphor in your fictional accounts, then I understand that this would be the worst.

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Scott Lynch – Red Seas Under Red Skies (2007) Review

red seas under red skies

  • Series: Gentleman Bastard series, part 2
  • My rating: 8.5/10

Red Seas Under Red Skies (2007) is the sequel to the highly successful The Lies of Locke Lamora (2006). Lies was a hodgepodge of story elements that chronicled the origin of Locke Lamora, and spoke to the adventurous parts in us. It started out as an Oliver Twist orphan tale, morphed into a tale of thievery similar to Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar (a huge influence generally on Lynch’s novels) and finally settled into a Die Hard-like tale of revenge. I liked Lies a lot, found it very entertaining but also very reminiscent of many other novels, and never truly fell in love with it.

In Red Seas Under Red Skies, we pick up the story in the aftermath of Lies. Only the quick-fingered Locke and his burly friend Jean Tannen are left of the Gentleman Bastards, and they have settled in the city Tal Verrar, which is like a fantasy Monte Carlo. If The Lies of Locke Lamora was about revenge in a fantasy-Venice, then Red Seas is more about heists and the high seas. The story is a combination of Ocean’s Eleven and Pirates of the Caribbean.

You see that I talk about these novels only in relation to known stories of adventure. If you like everything that I am name-dropping here, then you will probably like these novels as well. I just fear that the Gentleman Bastard series won’t really take its place as an original, innovating work…

Be that as it may, Red Seas starts out magnificently! Locke and Jean make for a great brotherly couple; they support each other, occasionally curse at each other, and Lynch makes their banter quite entertaining. Their friendship feels real and gives this novel a strong emotional heart. The two get involved in an elaborate double-crossing scheme that is just wonderful to see unfold, and the location Tal Verrar comes to life as a fascinating city. After hundreds of pages of Brandon Sanderson’s dull prose and bland dialogue, reading Lynch is a revelation.

Scott Lynch is a very talented writer, but he could use a stern editor. He is known for his characters’ witty banter, and he is one of the best of this generation in creating imaginary cities and in colorful descriptions of location. The scenes are strongly grounded in place. His plotting however is rather curious in the sense that the convoluted schemes of Locke and Jean are very interesting, but the unfolding of the story is very episodic at the same time. Locke and Jean just fall from one story into the next. So, the Ocean’s Eleven and the Pirates of the Caribbean parts are like two distinctive blocks in the novel.

In fact, after the first 1/3 of the novel, the story takes a complete U-turn. It’s the strangest thing. While in the middle of a heist in progress, Jean and Locke are forced to become pirates by an outside power, and the next few hundred pages are completely different, like Lynch decided mid-novel to write another novel. And unfortunately, while the pirates part is fine and introduces more fine characters, it takes a jarring mental switch to swallow this change in direction, and it is a step down in excitement from what came before.

Things do come together near the end, but by that time, the novel is taking too long. There is too much story going on. Locke and Jean have a dozen balls to keep in the air and they consistently fail but still survive. Nevertheless, Lynch continues to impress with his writing. Just like Lies, I’m glad I read it, I liked it a lot, but didn’t love it.

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Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013) Review

Jodorowskys Dune

9/10

Alejandro Jodorowsky is just this guy, you know? I have actually seen this documentary before but I am drawn back to it because of Jodorowsky. And yes, it is a really crazy story that they are telling in this documentary, but in the end it is not only about Jodorowsky’s failed project Dune, but about the way he approaches film. For him, making a movie is like a sacred task, a spiritual journey. He is so incredibly passionate about making his movies and he has the charisma to get everyone following his dreams.

I first learned about Jodorowsky when I saw his film The Holy Mountain. And boy, I could hardly handle that film. Read the disbelief in my review. That was some species of crazy and brilliant. On the surface, the film seemed crazy, random nonsense, but there was a vision behind it, a spiritual journey, and Jodorowsky truly believed that he could open people’s minds with his film. His French producer was enthralled and told him: just make whatever you want, and I’ll pay for it. Do whatever you want! And Jodorowsky said: I will make Dune!

And no doubt about it: if Dune had been made the way Jodorowsky envisioned it, it would have taken its place as a Classic with the capital C, and perhaps a highly influential film that would have changed the face of the film industry. It might have taken Star Wars’ place. It would have starred Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali, and music by Pink Floyd, and art design by H.R. Giger. The crazy thing is that they were all on board. A famous French cartoonist had drawn the storyboard and production was underway.

Except it was maybe too crazy. Jodorowsky and his French surrealists colleagues didn’t want to be tied to what Hollywood considered reasonable demands, like a film that wouldn’t take 12 hours. Jodorowsky was used to doing everything his way and with The Holy Mountain and El Topo that worked out well. Jodorowsky survived as a director because of eccentric European surrealists who wanted to see more. But with Dune his ambition swelled and swelled until the entire project collapsed under its own enormity.

Of course it was rejected by the American studios. Jodorowksy and his team put in years of work, but never was there a reasonable business plan for the producers. His fellow artists keep saying that “Hollywood wasn’t ready. He was ahead of his time.” but I don’t think that was the problem. The guy must have thought that the mere strength of his vision would compel financiers to pay for what he thought was the most important movie ever made. What were they thinking?

And of course it hurts that it never got made, because of what could have been. But there is a moment where ambition crosses a line where the only people that still believe in the project are fellow artists. That hurt of what-could-have-been and that inevitable rejection by Hollywood went hand in hand.

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Josiah Bancroft – Senlin Ascends (2013) Review

Senlin ascends

  • Series: The Books of Babel, 1
  • My rating: 8.5/10

Senlin Ascends is immediately affecting. Thomas Senlin is a sympathetic everyday man, a school headmaster and rather stiff and bookish. He’s newly married and on his honeymoon to visit the famous Tower of Babel. We meet him and his wife Marya on the train to Babel while he is totally out of his element as both a traveller and a newlywed. Right on their arrival in the city, Thomas is thrown into the chaos of Babel’s market and he feels totally overwhelmed, and right away disaster strikes: he loses his wife in the confusion. It is a very effective hook for a story. I liked Thomas and Marya immediately upon reading the first chapter and I quite felt for him for the predicament he found himself in.

Senlin Ascends has a curious history as a novel. It is one of the few success stories of self-publishing. Arriving in the bookstores in 2017, Josiah Bancroft had already self-published his story back in 2013. In interviews he mentions that he had a long history of rejection as a writer, and most of all, he thought that his story was a little strange and would not be accepted by the big publishers. His main worry was the protagonist, Thomas Senlin, who is a true flawed character in the sense that he isn’t very capable and has a lot to learn, and Bancroft worried that editors would demand of him to change his novel. However, Senlin Ascends gained a cult following, including fellow fantasy writer Mark Lawrence who championed the book and got Bancroft in touch with his agent. That finally lead to an official publication via Orbit, taking Bancroft’s version as is.

I don’t know whether Bancroft’s impression of publishers is true, but his novel in indeed quite unusual and extraordinary.

Expect a tale of exploration, as Senlin inevitably ascends the tower in search for his wife. Tales like these are, also inevitably, a bit thin on plot; instead moving from one situation to the next (in this case, one level to the next) while Senlin learns and grows. The journey is a bit dreamlike, fantasmagorical, and the tower therefore is more a metaphor than a realistic creation to take seriously at face value. It makes me wonder what the point is sometimes of Senlin’s experiences, because the book hardly has the metaphorical depth of the best dream-journeys out there, like James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen.

The charm lies in everything else: the sympathetic Thomas Senlin, the flowing, rich prose, the memorable side characters and unique situations Senlin enters. The book is a joy to read simply because of Bancroft’s easy writing style and sharp little metaphors, and the story’s main strength is that it is just so unique. With this I don’t necessarily mean the setup of a traveller moving from one situation to the next, but Senlin’s search for his lost wife, which is a premise I haven’t seen before in fantasy. Bancroft doesn’t just use it as a setup, but imbues it with a lot of pathos as Senlin gets more and more upset and melancholic. The situations he ends up in are also unpredictable and compelling.

Not all is perfect. I’m not that impressed with the characterization of Marya, his wife. Senlin is a typical awkward, insecure male and Marya is portrayed as this manic pixie dreamgirl who saved him from loneliness and awkwardness, confident and quirky and perfect in every way. She doesn’t feel like a real character. She is more like Dante’s Beatrice in The Divine Comedy, an idealized light at the end of Senlin’s ascension. Also, as Senlin reaches the fourth level and enters a new depressing situation, a tiredness came over me. This story moved slowly and clearly wasn’t going to be finished at the end of the novel.

Senlin Ascends came as such a surprise to the world of fantasy because it is such a good-hearted novel. It doesn’t try to be badass and edgy. Sure, many bad things happen, like betrayal and heartbreak, but Senlin fights against the tide to remain a good, morally upstanding person. And while the Tower is a fascinating place with the best set-pieces, the story remains personal and is not obsessed with exploring the world that the author created. Mysteries remain, and I am looking forward to the next novel.

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Ready Player One (2018) Review

ready player one

7/10

Before watching, I thought this was either going to be the worst movie of all time, or the awesomest one. For how do you react to a barrage of pop culture references? It’s nice that people like the same things from the past that I did, but overloading a movie with it seems such a cheap way to elicit emotion. Can I look past that? Should I?

After watching, I can say with some relief that Spielberg did try to make something truly enjoyable out of it. Even if you deal in second-hand material, you can still either do that in a sloppy way or in a loving way, and Spielberg’s inner drive and experience lead him to crafting a film with care and attention. His best qualities as an action/adventure director are on display here.

The film reminded me of countless game-inspired movies that were heavy on CGI, like WarCraft and the Final Fantasy films, and anime-inspired Speed Racer. It is mostly action and visuals inspired and has very little in the way of character development and realistic world building. What was excellent was the sustained suspense during the action and the composition of visuals and movement of the camera. Spielberg simply knows how to bring over a story with clarity and excitement.

The story itself though takes a lot of shortcuts. To keep the pace, things fall together in ways that are just too convenient or don’t always make sense. Characters miraculously all live in the same city, things like that. The scenes in the online world OASIS are like Uncanny Valley, The Movie. Only the older actors really stood out: Ben Mendelsohn and Mark Rylance.

I do hope that we have reached peak nostalgia now. This fad broke out a few years ago and this film came a year too late in my opinion. References and 80s nostalgia aren’t fresh anymore. This film has the highest concentration of references and the best production, so now we are done. Now we can all go home and world can move on to new ideas and new content. A film like this is not for the ages. A few decades from now, people will look at this film and think: it’s an old film referencing other old films, whatever. But for the moment, it works.

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Annihilation (2018) Review

Annihilation film

8/10

The story around Annihilation (2018) is just as interesting as the film itself. It will probably go down in history as not only a cult classic for science fiction and horror fans, but it is also part of the ongoing story of big movie releases going to Netflix. Annihilation’s move to Netflix shows an almost inevitable move by production companies to choose a release on streaming services as another tool for their marketing strategies. A precedent is set that if a movie is doing badly in theatres, it might just disappear quickly from the theatres or never arrive in on the big screen at all in other countries. A development that fills me with sadness.

The whole world of film enthusiasts was surprised to hear that Annihilation, a warmly anticipated film, only opened theatrically in the US, Canada and China for a few weeks. Beforehand, all signs pointed towards a major theatrical event: the film features well-known actors such as Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac, and good hope existed for a high-quality film, since director Alex Garland helmed the thing, fresh off his great success with Ex Machina in 2015.

My disappointment turned into scorn as the producers justified their decision by saying that the film was “too cerebral” for theatres. Never mind all the odd movies that appear at the local art house theatre. But as Dan Murrell from ScreenJunkies explained, there is a history behind this decision. The financiers had booked heavy losses last year with the incredibly dumb movie Geostorm (2017) and were loath to take risk (but you could hardly call Geostorm too cerebral), and Paramount watched the lukewarm reaction to Blade Runner 2049 (2017) by general audiences and similarly got cold feet. Thanks, Gerard Butler.

Luckily, a friend of mine had a Netflix subscription so we watched the movie together. The story concerns a mysterious area in the swamps of the southern US that is hidden behind an expanding barrier, and every exploration team that enters it, end up killed or lost through strange circumstances. Lena (Natalie Portman) enters Area X because her husband once did too, but came back as something like a zombie. She, a biologist, is part of an all-female team including a psychiatrist and a physicist. You could see it as a modern-day version of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979).

What’s very interesting about this film, and this is something that the guys from RedLetterMedia already mentioned, is that this is a film full of female scientists and soldiers, doing sciency things and soldiery things, and nobody talks about it the way people talked about, say, Wonder Woman (2017). Maybe because this is not such a blockbuster.

The movie succeeds magnificently as both a science fiction film and a horror film. There are some moments that froze my blood solid. It has a nightmarish feeling of not-understanding, and a creeping feeling of paranoia. At the same time, there are scientific concepts behind all the creepiness and the story engages with all these scientific hints in a way that is very satisfying. It shows nature mutating, growing over everything like fungi, and in those growths we see the hints of what happened to earlier expeditions.

The final half hour is a fantastically chilling confrontation with the unknown, the other. The book by Jeff Vandermeer is even better in this regard. It is very creepy but if we truly understand what is going on based on all the hints and explanations, there is no real evil present anywhere.

Not everything is perfect about this film. The first hour I thought was too slow, all the characters were too subdued and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character annoyed me. This is mostly deliberately done, but I found it hard to get into it. The story works like a slow burn, where at first I waited for things to start happening, and then I kept thinking about it for days afterwards. The more you think about it, the better it gets.

If you like your science fiction slow, smart and creepy, this is a must-see.

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John Wyndham – The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) Review

the midwich cuckoos

7/10

In the quiet, unremarkable town of Midwich, all is calm. Until a mysterious silver object falls from the sky, and afterwards, all the women in the town are discovered to be pregnant. They all give birth to identical boys and girls with blond hair and golden eyes.

John Wyndham was a reasonably successful British science fiction writer in the 50s and has a handful of SF novels on his name that are considered classics and are still in print today: The Day of the Triffids (1951) in which everyone gets blinded and attacked by sunflowers, The Chrysalids (1955) in which mutant children fight for freedom in a post-apocalyptic world, and this one. All have gotten bad movie adaptations. Let’s take a look at The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), which has quite an interesting premise, wouldn’t you agree?

Cuckoo of course refers to the cuckoo bird, famous for laying its eggs in the nests of other birds. The cuckoo chick then pushes all the other eggs out of the nest like a parasite.

Wyndham sticks with his theme of a small English town by telling a very calm story about middle class citizens dealing with supernatural events. In a dry, eloquent manner Wyndham talks about Mr and Mrs so-and-so having cups of tea and police chief this and teacher that maintaining calm at the local pub. There is a lot of my-dear-fellow-ing; the book feels like a 19th century one, actually. Hard to believe that this was written in the same era of Alfred Bester and Philip K. Dick. It is short but very descriptive, with the author just telling in a cheery voice what happened.

It’s like a cozier version of H.P. Lovecraft.

This is a decade after the Roswell incident and the story has some familiar elements that we associate with alien paranoia, such as aliens messing with our reproduction and having lost time. At the same time, it is set during the cold war and at a time when fears existed about internal communist takeovers of society.  The creepy children may be seen in that light. As such, it is a complementary novel to Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955).

The book is rather dated in some respects. Once every woman in the village becomes pregnant, you’d say that their stories have the most immediacy and modern writers would likely have made one or more of those women the main characters, but in this story the women are all struck down by shame and indecision, until the “three wise men” of the village – meaning the doctor, the vicar and the writer – come together to make decisions and mostly to decide how much information they should give their wives. It is all quite patronising, but if small English villages truly operated that way in the 50s, then you could see this story as “set in the historical time of the 1950s”.

The writer and intellectual of the village, Mr. Gordon Zellaby, is also the author’s mouthpiece. Erudite to the point of exaggeration, Mr. Zellaby figures out everything before others do and explains every philosophical point that Wyndham could come up with. This makes the story very descriptive with lots of people talking a lot, but it is also what makes the novel deeper and more interesting. Wyndham gets a lot of mileage out of a rather simple story.

I found it hard going at times. It is slow and detached. I suspect this book felt dated even back in the 50s, and this Zellaby character is too obviously a stand-in for the author. I liked the philosophical questions of how a village should handle the arrival of 60 alien babies and whether a rural community of humans can stand up against outside infiltration, but I fear this book will not stand the test of time well.

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