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'Steaming like raw meat dropped onto a hot stove'

Image: Cover of The Departure, by Neal Asher

It's not news that one shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but I have a soft spot for space opera; I confess, the big space base (which I initially mistook for a starship of some sort) adorning the cover of Neal Asher's novel, The Departure, helped sell me on it.

As it turned out though, The Departure hardly qualifies as space-opera and only squeaks by as science fiction pretty much the way Superman does: on technicalities only.

Though it's set in the future and some of the action takes place in orbit and on Mars, the book is really just a narrated first-person shooter dressed up in some SF tropes — a corrupt and incompetent world government, artificial intelligence, robotic weapons and a transhuman genesis.

But all that is only window-dressing. That spectacular cover is a gateway to lugubrious dialogue, sophomoric libertarian philosophy, hackneyed world-building and, especially, to one pornographic blood-bath after another.

The Departure is one of the worst books I have read in a very long time. More boring than Atlas Shrugged (which I reviewed a while back), it drips with just as much contempt for ordinary human beings. Unlike Rand's John Galt though, Asher's superman does much of his killing at first-hand.

Does this novel have any redeeming qualities? The short answer is "no". The long answer lives behind this link.

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1.0: Finding the culture-verse in an FM radio receiver

1.1: The kids today

Driving home yesterday, I did something I almost never do: being bored with CBC Radio and the Montreal AM sports station blathering on about something not hockey, I chanced upon a commercial music station and decided to give it a listen.

94.7 FM it was, "Montreal's Hit Music Channel".

What struck me first was that this station really plays pop hits, not just hits of a particular genre. 94.7 FM ain't a rock station, nor a pop station nor even a hip-hop station. It is all of the above, if I dare to judge by that hour and some minutes of exposure. The only thing missing was country (which has really been subsumed into rock anyway; Hank Williams wouldn't recognize today's "country" if it crooned at his 24 hours straight. But I digress).

The kids today, it seems, don't limit themselves to one particular style of noise music, but are in fact one hell of a lot more catholic in their tastes that the radio of my era would have suggested.

And good on them; I guess the internet is good for something after all, eh?

1.2: Disco laughs last

That said, and though the technical merits of the music on offer were bloody slick, there was a sameness at the back of just about everything I heard, a monotonous back-beat that reminded me of the "sound" in the 80s when even really good drummers did their damnest to immitate drum machines.

Driving just about all the music I heard last night was a descendant of disco's throbbing dance-hall backbeat. I'm not saying there is nothing to distinguish between the pop songs and the rap tunes and the rock-and-roll on offer, but all three had clearly been infected by that which so many of us loudly said "sucked" way back in the day.

I guess people like to dance ...

1.3: The decline of Anglo Montréal (and the rise of a bilingual urban polity)

As you might have noticed above, 94.7 is an English-language radio station. Not so the ads. Like many of my Montréal-based passengers, the ads on 94.7 presume the audience is bilingual. At a guess, I'd say maybe a third of those I heard were in French, and French only.

Which is pretty god damned cool, when you think about it.

And which, as I alluded to above, matches my observation of the younger cohort among my Montréal-based crews. Those people, Anglo and Franco alike, are bilingual down to their genes, switching between languages while they talk without any hesitation, nor even, any apparent self-consciousness. Whatever works in the moment.

Dunno if the phenomenon will survive over the long term, but in the short one, it is a beautiful thing to witness.

* * *

2.0: Speaking ill of the dead

To completely change the subject, those of you who give a damn already know that Elisabeth Sladen — yes, Doctor Who's Sarah Jane Smith — dies nearly two years ago now.

What you might not know is that she wrote (or rather, she told her story to a hack) a memoir shortly before the cancer got her.

Fool that I am, I dared to hope that Lis Sladen might be even half as interesting as Sarah Jane was. Not quite. Elisabeth Sladen: the autobiography is really only going to be of interest to those who knew her work with the Third and Fourth Doctors, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. That's what most of the book covers, but only superficially.

Anyway, my full review lives here and my intro to that piece is over here.

3.0 Music, music, (new) music!

Finally, for those of you who've slogged all the way through my meanderings, a reward. Gin Wigmore is a young(ish) Kiwi who has knocked my proverbial socks off like no one since Emmy the Great came to my cognizance maybe a half-year or so back.

Anyway, without further ado ... Sweet Hell with Gin Wigmore!

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Publication!

Reviewing Christopher Hitchens' Mortality

 

P.T. Barnum is alleged to have said, "There's no such thing as bad press, so long as they spell your name right." But what is one supposed to do when the press is good, but the spelling is not?

Shoot the messenger, bite the hand ... and toot one's own horn, I guess. So damn the clichés and full speed ahead.

I suppose I would better have done all of the above when I first got my complimentary copies of the magazine in the mail back in December, but illness and the press of other business got in the way of proper self-promotion.

Those copies made for a sort of early Christmas present, but signed with an insult (presumably unintentional).

 

Or, as the old joke goes, I found good news and bad news in my mailbox.

Since I am one who prefers his misery lessened rather than his happiness punctured, that's how I'll tell the (brief) story.

The bad news was that Humanist Perspectives magazine thinks my first name is spelled GeoffEry, not GeoffrEy.

The good news is, its Winter 2012/2013 edition contains my review of Christopher Hitchens' post-humus meditation on living with the cancer that led to his death, Mortality.

(And, perhaps karmically, though the ultimate E and R are reversed in my byline and the table of contents, both my name and my website address (that's www.ed-rex.com folks!) are exactly right inn the two-line bio below the essay.)

I won't pretend it isn't gratifying to see some of my work in actual (paper) print again. 2009 was a while ago.

But, though the Winter issue of Humanist Perspectives is still the current issue and can still be found on better newsstands across Canada, I think it's time to share the work with the rest of the world.

The full text (very slightly modified from its magazine publication) lives behind this link. And you guys are first in line.

_______

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Drawing on myths from Jamaica to Russia, on folk tales of Coyote and Brer Rabbit, and maybe from sources as disparate as Chuck Jones, J.R.R. Tolkien and Mervyn Peake (not to mention Lewis Carroll), Nalo Hopkinson's "Young Adult" debut is as singular a creation as it has been my pleasure to read in a very long time.

All at once a surreal adventure, a subtle exploration of privilege in caste-ridden society and a daring push against the walls of narrative fiction itself, The Chaos has no villain and its (black, Canadian) heroine never wields a blade nor fires a gun.

Though questions of race and identify form organic parts of how the novel's characters view and interact with the world (none of the book's major characters is white), race is not what the book is about. Hopkinson is telling a story, she is not preaching.

Narrated by probably the most fully-realized teenager I have come across in fiction, The Chaos is always surprising, a thoroughly unconventional page-turner you owe it to yourself to read — to pass on to any literate young person you know.

For my full review, click, "When I cried, the tears were black."

 

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A Prayer for John Irving

The ageing writer stared out at the reader with all the intensity of an old athlete in denial. His fierce eyes and tight-lipped smile were islands of fading youth set amid the ragged 'scape of a craggy face topped by a shock of thinning grey hair brushed defiantly backwards, exposing a hairline receding like a melting glacier.

The reader was reminded of the hockey player Guy Lafleur during his last year as a Montreal Canadien, the team he had led to five Stanley Cups in the 1970s. The hockey player had been in slow decline for three years, become precipitous during the 1984-1985 season. The former 50 goal scorer managed a mere two in 19 games before hanging up his skates

There was no obvious reason for the hockey player's inability to score. To the reader, it seemed the hockey player could skate as fast, shoot the puck as hard, as he ever had; if anything, it looked like he skated faster than he once had — but maybe that was an illusion, a mirage, born of the fact that, though the old athlete's competitive spirit was as fierce as ever (or fiercer!), he had to work much harder even to almost accomplish what he had once made look easy.

But writers are not hockey players and analogies are treacherous tools. If some writers burn out early, as if they only had one or two books in them, others produce at a steady, life-long, pace without major ups or downs; still others — a minority, but not not a tiny minority — go out with a bang, leaving a masterpiece as their final legacy. Consider Joseph Heller, consider John le Carré, consider Mordechai Richler, as exemplars of the three types.

And consider John Irving's most recent novel, a long, a meandering and a very dull tome from a writer the reader is now certain ought to have retired once the first signs of auctorial impairment — a tendency to have his character give voice to the writer's political opinions — surfaced in the narrative of his last good book, A Prayer for Owen Meanie. (See A Widow for One Year for an especially egregious example.)

So let us consider Last Night In Twisted River. Full review, some spoilers, at Edifice Rex Online.

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For the record, my copy of N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms came courtesy of a contest conducted by the writer Tricia Sullivan, whose novel, Maul, I read a few years back and which which has since stayed with me far more strongly than most. I wish I could say the same about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. (Edited to fix typos. Thanks to shanaqui for the head's up.)

Stormwinds over a cardboard world

Nebula-nominated first novel is epic failure

I opened N.K. Jemisin's (now Nebula Award nominated) first novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, having occasionally read the author's blog and commentary elsewhere on the internet, and was well-aware the book had been getting a lot of positive attention since it was published last year. In other words, I was looking forward to reading at least a very good debut novel and hoping for even more than that.

Instead, I find myself obliged to discuss a first novel about which I can find almost nothing good to say whatsoever — except to note that, on page 222, the author offers a striking and (I think) original metaphor for the female orgasm.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a novel remarkable only for the lack of detail and verisimilitude of its world-building, the droning sameness of its characters (god or human — you can't tell them apart), the thoughtlessly anachronistic dialogue and banality of its prose.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not the worst novel I've ever read (there are lots of bad books out there), but it might be the worst highly-praised science fiction novel I've ever come across (I say "might" because it has been many years since I read Lord of Light).

The basics include a number of standard fantasy tropes. A world not quite our own, shared by humans and a more ancient and powerful race; a heroine with a Special Destiny; a society with a pre-industrial technology (plus magic) and a feudal political order with a cruel and corrupt extended family at the top of the heap.

There's nothing inherently wrong with re-using the familiar to tell a story, but there is a lot wrong with using those tropes so badly the reader never feels they are looking in on another world, let alone that they have actually entered into what Tolkien called a secondary creation.

For a fantasy to succeed, if must convince the reader of not only the reality of its narrative but of that narrative's background. The author must pay attention to such things as his or her world's history and culture, to its tools and technology, as much as to character and psychology.

To my ears, neither Jemisin's world-building nor her character-building convince, let alone provide cause to care. Worse, her prose is sophomoric and her dialogue painfully melodramatic.

I did not answer, and after a moment Scimina sighed.

"So," she said, "there are new alliances being formed on Darr's borders, meant to counter Darr's perceived new strength. Since Darr in fact has no new strength, that means the entire region is becoming unstable. Hard to say what will happen under circumstances like that."

My fingers itched for a sharpened stone. "Is that a threat?"

"Please, Cousin. I'm merely passing the information along. We Arameri must look out for one another."

"I appreciate your concern." I turned to leave, before my temper slipped any further ...

These are not words that sing, nor dialogue that breathes. Is there anything in this book that does? There is more on my website.

ed_rex: (1980)

The best art looks upon the face of change without blinking; the best art acknowledges death.

That's why A.A. Milne's seemingly simple and superficial children's story's, commonly known as Winnie-the-Pooh, brought me to tears when I was very young and why it still does now that I am but one year away from being (forty) six.

That's right, reader, Winnie-the-Pooh makes me cry and I don't care who knows it. Further, it is heartbreaking because it is indeed, about the little deaths each of us face, over and over again, as we grow up. For, like snakes sloughing off a season's skin, to gain a new place in the race of our lives, is to leave the old one behind.

Children's stories or no, A.A. Milne's gentle, loving stories about a small boy and his menagerie of stuffed toys does not shy away from the hard truths of live.

* * *

The inscription (at right) is as simple as it is sentimental — and yet as profound as it is cognizant of the unusual boy that was my parents' first child, then making the transition from 12 to 13 years old.

I was a kid who read The Globe and Mail with breakfast and romped with Batman when I came home from school; I was as interested in politics as I was fanatical about the fate of the Montréal Canadiens; a kid whose long-term ambitions were torn between wanting to go into cosmology in one way or another, or into politics with an eye towards becoming Canada's first socialist Prime Minister.

I still built sand-castles in the summer, yet thrilled to CBC Radio's international affairs program, Sunday Morning, "a week in the life of the world." I was growing up, I knew it, but I happily embraced those parts of me that were still childish.

The World of (very young) Geoffrey

The World of Pooh, pages 306 and 307: words by A.A. Milne, illustration by E.H. Shepard. (Photo: The Phantom Photographer.)
The World of Pooh, pages 306 and 307: words by A.A. Milne, illustration by E.H. Shepard. (Photo: The Phantom Photographer.)

We were far from rich when I was growing up and going out to a restaurant was a rare treat (even taking home Chinese or a pizza was an uncommon occurrence). But they usually managed it on our birthdays.

My 13th was no exception.

If memory serves, both my mother and my father were present despite the fact they had separated a few years before. We ate at an Italian restaurant, one with linen table-clothes and waiters wearing ties — a fancy place indeed to a 13 year-old Sudbury boy.

I enjoyed a plate of veal parmigiana, with spaghetti and meat-sauce on the side and, no doubt, a chocolate milk-shake.

I don't remember the conversation that went 'round the table, but I do remember when the presents came out after dinner.

And the present I remember unwrapping, unlikely as it may sound, was the very volume whose illustrations accompany this piece.

The book was (and still is) a hard-cover omnibus edition of stories I had loved since before I could remember, stories my mother had read to me and my brother over many nights, again and again. In my mind both books were Winnie-the-Pooh, but by law they were Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928). The omnibus was only made things right again.

It was in fact a very good edition. The book today, though yellowed 'round the edges and missing its dust-jacket, is in excellent condition and shows every sign of being around at least another 32 years and probably thrice that without difficulty.

I opened it up and read the inscription with gratitude and pleasure. I was turning 13 and I knew very well that my childhood was slipping away from me. Having a small piece to hold on to forever seemed like a very fine thing to me.

And indeed, over the subsequent years, I read and re-read the book a number of times, probably once every two or three years. Usually on one of those melancholy Sunday afternoons when it's raining non-stop, or feels like it anyway. One of those days one wants to revisit a comfortable place.

Childhoods' ends

Mind you, even those of us who struggle to hold on to our personal chain of being — to feel the link from then to now — inevitably find that links once thought secure rust and break away.

The superhero comic books I once loved just about unreadable to me today1.; Frances Hodgson Burnet's The Secret Garden is smug and really boring and even Kenneth Graham's The Wind in the Willows had lost much of its charm the last time I revisited it, probably nearly a decade ago.

I think it was that latter disappointment that stopped me from opening Pooh again for many years, perhaps because my edition was also illustrated by Sheppard. At any even, I decided that I didn't want to risk learning that the world of Pooh was another world lost to me for good.

Now, it occurs to me that many of you who know the "bear of very little brain" strictly through the execrable bowdlerizations courtesy of Walt Disney Inc. might be wondering just what in the world it is I am going on about. Certainly, it was that belief on my part, and that reality on the part of a friend (the lovely and intelligent woman I am allowed to refer to only as Raven), who indeed knew Pooh only as a Disney image, just one more corporate symbol polluting the childhood's of people the world over.

All right, "polluting" is my word, not hers.

"He's cute!" she said a few weeks back. I grumbled and shoved back my chair, then stalked into my office, shortly thereafter returning with my prized (if long unopened) possession.

"It's a damned sight better than 'cute'!" I thrust the volume at her and, with understandable trepidation, she began to leaf through it.

I think it took her a while to come to appreciate the deceptive simplicity in Shepard's line drawings, or even the later colour illustrations. But she was intrigued enough that she began to read it bits and pieces of it. And I was intrigued (and pleased!) enough by her reaction to begin to read bits and pieces of it myself.

I had no intention of re-reading the entire book. But once I'd read a couple of chapters and found myself laughing out loud at Rabbit's officious pomposity, at Eeyore's morosely self-pitying sarcasm I found myself compelled to return to the begining.

But I think it was this exchange that made the decision final.

Whether he would have thought of anything before he had finished the last sandwich, I don't know, but he had just got to the last but one when there was a crackling in the bracken, and Christopher Robin and Eeyore came strolling along together.

"I shouldn't be surprised if it hailed a good deal tomorrow," Eeyore was saying. "Blizzards and whatnot. Being fine today doesn't Mean Anything. It has no sig — what's that word? Well, it has none of that. It's just a small piece of weather."

"There's Pooh!" said Christopher Robin, who didn't mind much what it did tomorrow, as long as he was out in it. "Hallo, Pooh!"

"It's Christopher Robin!" said Piglet. "He'll know what to do."

They hurried up to him.

"Oh, Christopher Robin," began Pooh.

"And Eeyore," said Eeyore.

"Tigger and Roo are right up the Six Pine Trees, and they can't get down, and —"

"And I was just saying," put in Piglet, "That if only Christopher Robin —"

"And Eeyore —"

"If only you were here, then we could think of something to do."

Christopher Robin looked up at Tigger and Roo, and tried to think of something.

"I though," said Piglet earnestly, "that if Eeyore stood at the bottom of the tree, and if Pooh stood on Eeyore's back, and if I stood on Pooh's shoulders —

"And if Eeyore's back snapped suddenly, then we could all laugh. Ha ha! Amusing in a quiet way," said Eeyore, "but not really helpful."

Well," said Piglet meekly, "I thought —"

"Would it break your back, Eeyore?" asked Pooh, very much surprised.

"That's what would be so interesting, Pooh. Not being quite sure till afterwards."

Over a few days, a chapter or two at a time, I read the book(s) from start to finish, wondering whether Milne's eucatastrophe still held any power over my imagination.

About midway through the second book, I began to feel more confident. Milne hints at the small tragedy to come and I found my eyes watering appropriately.

And yes, when the final revelation comes, when we learn what Christopher Robin does in the mornings and prepare to Say Goodbye, I wept nearly as freely as I had as a child.

The world of Pooh is a small world, but a true one; a child's world, but not a childish one. Death is disguised as change, but it is present — as it should be. And Milne's courage, or good sense (or maybe just good luck) means that his creation will outlast any number of saccharine Disney adaptations. Winnie-the-Pooh will stand the test of time.

So, thank you, mummy and daddy. Thank you for that utterly appropriate gift as I was coming of age. And many happy returns of the day, to me and to all of us still linked to the children we once were.

Endpiece to 'An Enchanted Place', the final chapter of 'The House at Pooh Corner', written by A.A. Milne, illustration by E.H. Shepard

1. With the notable exception of C.C. Beck's wonderfully whimsical and utterly inimitable Captain Marvel. — Return.

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I've never liked the aphoristic form, never warmed to twee, manga-style illustrations and have always been suspicious of Utopias — in my experience, the latter tend to be either fascist or ridiculously simplistic in nature — or both.

Dawn - The Admonishments, by M.C.A. Hogarth
So it was with more than a little trepidation that I leafed through the twin volumes that recently arrived in the mail for me, The Aphorisms of Kherishdar and The Admonishments of Kherishdar, both written and illustrated by one M.C.A. Hogarth, who — remarkably — read my evisceration of Battlestar Galactica's abysmal finale and asked whether I'd be interested in reviewing her efforts at what I think she called "anthropological science fiction".

Well-bound and printed on good paper, but with covers that feel a little too much like mediocre comic book covers, before even opening either book I was already contemplating a quick email to the author, thanking her for the review copies and informing her that I would not actually review the books. Criticizing Battlestar Galactica or doing my small bit to prick the inflated reputation of the likes of Gregory Maguire is one thing. Slamming a self-published writer of little standing in the world of lit-rah-toor is something very different and not a game I intend to play without good reason.

But still, the author went to the trouble of sending me review copies; the least I could do was to ignore the covers and give the words a chance.

And I'm glad I did; Hogarth has written a diptych quite unlike any I have read before.

The Aphorisms of Kherishdar, by M.C.A. Hogarth
The Aphorisms of Kherishdar
By M.C.A. Hogarth
M. Hogarth, 2008, 57 pages, US$20.00

The Admonishments of Kherishdar, by M.C.A. Hogarth
The Admonishments of Kherishdar
By M.C.A. Hogarth
M. Hogarth, 2008, 57 pages, US$20.00

Kherishdar is a society — an empire — "that spans five worlds and several thousand years, with laws and customs that have served us for as long as we have walked these earths."

Set at some indefinite point in our future, Kherishdar has made contact with aunera — or "aliens", which is to say, with human beings — and the books are an attempt to explain the ways of the people of Kherishdar, the Ai-Naidar, to us, or presumably, to our future selves. One or two human beings play very small parts in some of the chapters, but Hogarth stays true to her intentions and does not offer the reader an easy "in" with a human character exploring an alien culture. Rather, we are and remain the aliens, and so must make what we will of the Aphorisms and Admonishments presented to us.

Ironically, science fiction readers more and more seem to me to (mostly) be creatures of habit, preferring the false sense of the new in endless trilogies and eternal television novelizations (has anyone done a count of Doctor Who or Star Trek novels?). Even ostensibly alien civilizations are seldom more than an extreme version of one particular human tendency or another. And it's the rare piece of SF indeed that eschews a view-point character with which the reader is supposed to identify.

Hogarth does none of the above. There are no good guys nor bad guys, no world-shaking conflict; no war, revolution or invasion. Indeed, neither volume has even an obvious over-riding plot (though the careful reader will see that there is a narrative thread stitching together each volume's 25 stories), merely a narrator who seems no more than Fifth Business, recounting the tales of others who have crossed their paths.

Kherishdar is a society — let's face it, a Utopia, of sorts — that at first glance seems rigidly and even reactionarily hierarchical. Ruled by an Emperor, overseen by Nobles, protected by Guardians, at first glance Kherishdar seems as anachronistic as that presented in Herbert's Dune series, and it seems clear that Hogarth is at least familiar with Plato's Republic even if she is not attempting to directly update it.

Having long since dismissed Herbert's futuristic feudalism as silly and despised Plato's very readable yet fundamentally dishonest apologia for totalitarianism, it came as no surprise to me that I was not convinced by Hogarth's portrait of a similar society as something that not only works as a structure, but as a structure that also works for the individuals within it.

But "not convinced" is not the same as having my suspension of disbelief tossed out the window.

Hogarth's world is one whose "people" all (or almost all) take their responsibilities very seriously indeed. It is a society in which Lords are genuinely responsible for those below them on the social pecking order as well as to those above them.

The narrator of The Aphorisms is a calligrapher, roughly in the middle range of the social hierarchy, whose job extends far beyond that of his equivalent in our world — a commercial artist, perhaps, living off of commissions. At least in the 25 tales presented to us, he sees his calling as one that entails providing his patrons not only with what they want in terms of his craft, but also with what they need in terms of their personal well-being.

Similarly in The Admonishments, the narrator Kor is "Shame" or "Correction", a position without a genuine parallel in any society with which I am familiar. Kor's duty is to heal criminals, those who have in some way failed in their duties — whether to family, friend or to someone above or below them in Kherishdar's hierarchy.

At first glance, the position seems closer to that of a torturer under the medieval Catholic Church, but once again Hogarth's stories make clear that correction — providing what the "criminal" needs — is at the heart of the process. And, as more than one of the tales makes clear, what someone needs may not be what custom or law prescribes.

I said somewhere above that Hogarth hasn't managed to convince me that this alien society, or the aliens within it, might actually exist. My western, individualist prejudices want to argue that Hogarth presents us with an impossibly incorruptible oligarchy, but the point is that I want to argue and not simply dismiss her "secondary creation" as either silly or fascistic. In short, I want to know more about her creation, because whether or not I would ultimately deem her society "good" or "bad", it is definitely different — and so well-worth the time of any SF reader interested in something other than adolescent wish-fulfilment fantasies, or indeed, of any reader interested in thinking about how our world works (and doesn't) and how we might learn to do things differently.

Many of the stories are available for free on Hogarth's website, so you can easily sample them for yourself. If you enjoy them, $20 bucks per book is not at all out of line. Despite my reaction to the covers, some of the interior illustrations (see above for an example) are lovely and the books themselves are well-produced and should last you a good long while.

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1985 saw me dabble in cinephilia. I spent a lot of time at the nearest repertory theatre (at least once, crutched down to Bloor from Saint-Claire and back again; but my Adventures With a Broken Leg are a matter for another day), mostly Hollywood's days of glorious black and white - Casablanca, The Petrified Forest, The Maltese Falcon and other noirish classics, along with features by the Marx Brothers - and who knew that Beat the Devil would turn out to be a comedy! I love Bogart and Bacall, Hepburn and Grant, and of course, Peter Lorre's utterly sleazy supporting roles.

But I did not entirely eschew the current cinema. Two films in particular spoke to me. It was a time, and I was at an age, when the possibility of a nuclear holocaust seemed a clear and present danger; when Ronald Reagan seemed intent on rewriting the word, America, with a 'k' in place of the softer 'c'; when anyone who wanted to know, did know, that "our" side was funding deaths squads in Latin America while undermining democracy at home.

In short, it was a time not entirely unlike today, except (hard as it is to believe) the American President was smarter than the one occupying that House now. And both Terry Gilliam's utterly bleak update of 1984, Brazil and Ray Lawrence's adaptation of the Peter Carey novel, Bliss, a film which matched Gilliam's cynical and despairing vision of our society, while still offering the viewer at least the possibility of redemption and possibly even love.

It was a film that made me laugh, that shocked and appalled me with some of its imagery, and that left me with tears of both joy and sadness with its final, simple, elegiac final voiced over line: "He was our father. He told stories and he planted trees."

Bliss


I've re-watched the film many times, sometimes alone, sometimes on dates (I even used it as a halfway serious way to vet new or potential girlfriends. The one who looked me in the eye and said, "That's the dumbest movie I've ever seen in my life!", well, we didn't last long. And come to think of it, Laura wasn't much impressed with it either; I should have paid more attention. But I digress), and it still brings tears to my eyes and a catch to my throat.

It's a film that moves me as very few have managed, that speaks to me, in other words.

Some 23 years later, I finally stumbled across a copy of the original, while on a spontaneous visit to my local Sally Ann. As you can imagine, I wanted to love the novel, as well. Since it's a pretty safe rule-of-thumb that the original book is better than the movie, I almost (the movie was too good to trust to rough-and-ready rules, of thumb or otherwise) expected to love it.

I did try Carey's more recent and very well-regarded novel, The True History of the Kelly Gang a few months back, but was unable/unwilling to finish it. The story didn't compel me, the slang (because I wasn't compelled) became a slog and one day I put it down and only picked it up again to shelve it.

I did finish Bliss, and even enjoyed it, but certainly can't bring myself to enthusiastically rave about it.

Bliss is the story of Harry Joy, a successful advertising executive with (he thinks) a wife and children who love him and friends who care about him. The near-death experience with which the novel opens (a heart attack, 9 minutes without a beat; an out-of-body astral projection) establishes both the slightly surreal tone of the book (and imagery in the film) and sets in motion the plot. For when Harry recovers, his illusions have been torn away.

His wife doesn't love him; his son deals drugs; his daughter is a communist who sometimes pays her brother for his drugs with service instead of money. The list goes on.

After a series of "tests" during his recovery, Harry decides that he is in Hell and that his only way out is to be Good.

Naturally, many obstacles and temptations stand in his way (not the least, yet not the most of them, is that his family has him committed to a mental institution whose only interest in him is the income he brings in) and not even the not-at-all stereotypical whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, Honey Barbara, can save him.

Film adaptations of short stories usually work better than adaptations of full-length novels. And maybe that serves to explain what is wrong with Bliss, the novel.

Though the novel clocks in at nearly 300 pages, the film includes nearly all of its scenes. With elegant and meaningful imagery, Ray Lawrence shows where Carey all all too often tells.

The scene in which Harry is told that an elephant sat on his car is, in the film, a very funny minute and a half or so; in the novel, it is several pages of exposition which left me thinking, Yes, I can see how that might be funny, but as Carey wrote it, it barely brought a smile to my lips.

There is enough here to keep you reading, enough to image how Ray Lawrence saw the bones of a very good film hiding among the exposition, but it is not, sadly, a very good book.
ed_rex: (Default)
Tuesday afternoon saw me on Java's patio for the first time in quite a while, scribbling in a notebook with a pint near to hand. Yes, I have actually been writing at long last! Nothing that I am yet willing to show anyone, but the mere fact of putting pen to page for something other than a blog leaves me glowing, just a little.

I have also been reading. Tuesday morning saw me discover a new bookshop on Roncesvalles, where I picked up Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I managed to read a couple of hundred pages before making my way downtown. And, downtown at Java, a couple of gentlemen at a nearby table were discussing some to do with Harry Potter, loudly enough that I feared I would be struck down by a dreaded spoiler.

I first tried the old stick-your-fingers-in-your-ears-while-mumbling, but found that was conducive neither to writing nor drinking, nor even to smoking. Also, I suspected it made me look a tad sillier than even I do normally. I finally removed myself to the back of the patio and waited until they - happily - took their loud leave a few minutes later.

That said, I finished the final Potter volume yesterday, and I will do my best to avoid loosing any spoilers below, though in my ever-so-humble opinion, there isn't much to spoil.

Obviously, given that I read all 600 pages of the book over a 30-hour period, J.K. Rowling's words are as compulsively readable as ever. And possibly, her prose has improved significantly. At the very least, I noticed far few extraneous adjectives accompanying the dialogue (eg, "he said crossly, happily", &ct).

Other than that, though, the book was a let-down. As one very long climax, it lacked dramatic tension and none of the surprises surprised me all.

The final 125 or so pages consist of a battle for Hogwarts, as the good guys and bad guys line up to (mostly) cast spells at one another. While I kept turning the pages, the battle scene - despite its length - felt more like it was meant for the silver screen than to be prose.

The novel - and by extension, the series - lacks pathos and I closed the book happy that it was over. If I'd known Tuesday what I know now, I'd have waited for the paperback.

All dissing aside, it is eminently readable and reasonably entertaining. I imagine that, were I a teenager rather than a jaded goat in the late days of his youth, I would have liked it quite a bit more.

Recommended for those who've been waiting for it, but if you've avoided the bandwagon this long, you might as well keep on walking.
ed_rex: (Default)


The God Delusion

by Richard Dawkins

Houghton Mifflin, 2006; 406 pages, $35.95
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. Those of us schooled from infancy in his ways can become desensitized to their horror. A naif blessed with the perspective of innocence has a clearer perception. Winston Churchill's son Randolph somehow contrived to remain ignorant of scripture until Evelyn Waugh and a brother officer, in a vain attempt to keep Churchill quiet when they were posted together during the war, bet him he couldn't read the entire Bible in a fortnight: 'Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped. He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud "I say I bet you didn't know this came in the Bible..." or merely slapping his side & chortling "God, isn't God a shit!"' Thomas Jefferson - better read - was of a similar opinion: 'The Christian God is a being of terrific character - cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.' (The God Delusion, page 31.)

To read my review, click here to see below the cut; but be warned, it's a long one. )
ed_rex: (Default)
The Confusion, the second volume of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, moves at a much faster pace than the first. Though Stephenson's style hasn't changed - he is still willing to offer sardonic asides and the occasional footnote - the novel (the author himself notes that The Confusion is really two novels, but this is a strange thing to point out; many novels go from one narrative thread to the other over the course of a book and this one is not a particularly unusual variation on that convention) covers only a few years and does, in fact focus much more tightly on only two protagonists.Read more by clicking this-here highlighted text )

Cross-posted to my own journal, to bookish, to bookreview_lj, to books, to mere_review, to review_o_rama, to sf_book_reviews, and to the you_review communities.
ed_rex: (Default)
One of the many knocks against science fiction is that it tends towards the "heroic"; that is, SF follows the formulaic tropes of adventure stories, in which an exceptional hero, through courage, brains and sheer grit, triumphs over evil forces of (apparently) vastly superior powers.

Like most slanders, there is some truth to the claim and, in the early days of SF, there was a great deal of truth to it. In the 1930s and into the 1940s, written SF was sold to the pulp magazine market at (if the writer was lucky) a penny a word, and hacks cranked the stuff out so long as there was a market. Polished prose was a luxury the few writers capable of it did not have time for, and so its (mostly young) readers were treated to westerns in space, as it were. Unidimensional heroes that made Star Trek's Captain Kirk seem as conflicted as Hamlet were forever saving babes, worlds and the universe itself, apparently undergoing no psychological growth whatsoever while doing so.

But those were the early days and the field has matured, both commercially over the past 30 years and artistically, over an even longer period of time.

Yet the slander remains, and "serious" literary people won't deign to even read the stuff unless it is written by Margaret Atwood or some other literary author who has chosen to slum. (That they almost always do a piss-poor job of it - Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale being an excellent case-in-point. The novel said little, politically or psychologically, that had not been said by Robert A. Heinlein in his novella, If This Goes On, published in 1941. But I digress.)

As things now stand, written science fiction, in terms of the quality of its prose, is probably no better and no worse than other fields of fiction (SF is not a genre, though there are genres within the field of science fiction - space-opera, for example; it is a field of literature with certain conventions, yes, but not the strict formulae of Harlequin Romance novels or superhero comic books). Where SF differs from so-called "mundane fiction" is that it is not restricted to what is commonly considered the "real world", nor is it restricted to dealing with human psychology as it is now.

Science fiction can be set in the past, the present or the future, just as an SF novel's narrative can be followed on Earth, in space or on a world located thousands of light-years away. It requires author and reader, both, to make use of their imaginations in a manner that mundane fiction seldom does. Done well, it provides the double-pleasure of showing the reader something utterly new, while at the same time providing a distorting - and so, creative - reflection of that reader's own time and place. In other words, SF can do all that mundane fiction can, with a whole lot of extras thrown in at no extra charge.

Which brings me to Neal Stephenson's very long novel, Quicksilver. At nearly 1,000 pages of small, close-set type it is only the first volume of his three volume trilogy, System of the World. It is at once an literary tour-de-force in its loose, comfortable style, and a traditional exercise in plot-driven, heroic adventure in its guts - though I was deep into the second volume, The Confusion, before I realized it.I know, I've waited a hell of a long time before asking you to read on! )

Cross-posted to my own journal, to bookish, to bookreview_lj, to books, to mere_review, to review_o_rama, to sf_book_reviews, and to the you_review communities.

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