Thursday, 30 June 2011

Holy Wood Part I [Reviews: Day Of The Locust and Moving Pictures]

Nathanael West's short, bleak novella Day Of The Locust is narrated by a hard-up artist working as a scene painter in Hollywood, doomed to a life of unrequited love and unrecognized talent. The object of his affections is the typical actress-in-waiting, turning tables and sometimes tricks to get by in the absence of the "big break." The craziness of Hollywood is laid bare - in a defining, dream-like scene, the narrator walks through an elephant's graveyard of discarded props.

Terry Pratchett's Discworld is not actually a disc but a lens - through it some aspect of the real world is brought into focus, usually for the purposes of ridicule. In Moving Pictures, the Discworld alchemists discover a celluloid-like material that enables an entire industry to spring up overnight, but the hypnotic power drawing people to Holy Wood to seek their fortunes hints at the revival of an ancient evil. The new opportunities turn Discworld society on it's head: suddenly trolls are in huge demand, and seller of sizzle Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler finds his skills are perfectly suited to the role of movie mogul.

Both novels turn on the exploitative nature of the movie industry. This is still true to some degree even today, but arguably that's nothing compared to the outright abuse of the "Golden Age Of Cinema" and, when modern day scriptwriters or other movie professionals go on strike, it's worth remembering that this unionisation might be the only reason things are even slightly better.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Ai Weiwei Released

I previously wrote about Sunflower Seeds and artist Ai Weiwei's disappearance here. Yesterday and today BBC News has been reporting his release.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

How To Review A Book

I think it's fair to say that many of the reviews on this blog are not technically "reviews" but more "responses" - I'm not trying to provide a Which? Dystopian Novel service but to write honestly about my own reaction to what I've seen or read, and where it takes me. So I fail on two counts - I've been held up on occasion for failing to give a score out of 10 (thank you Actress Confessions sweetie) but nor am I writing traditional literary analysis.

It's good to learn, grow and develop, so here are some ideas about how to write more in-depth book reviews, together with an example drawn from a classic piece of utopian-dystopian fiction. This is neither comprehensive nor ecumenical: I intend to draw on some, all or none of these points in future and would be interested in other approaches to reviewing as well.

What is the book about?

The novel is set in an eco-friendly future where, possibly due to genetic engineering "even the trees are happy." The protagonist, either the engineer of this society or some kind of mascot, becomes restless and walks beyond the boundary of the known into an unfamiliar forest, where chance discoveries bring him face to face with a genuinely miserable person - at which point he must make the most important choice in both their lives.

What does it achieve?

The story develops a highly optimistic philosophy: universal happiness can be achieved but misery must be acknowledged and confronted rather than excluded.

How does it achieve it?

The setting is simply presented as fact: the workings of Happyland society are never revealed. As Arthur C. Clark almost said: "Any novel about sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic realism." The hero is the archetypal Happy Man, and his nemesis the Miserable Man he meets at the foot of the staircase is identical in every way apart from his unexplained melancholia, so is clearly an unconscious facet of the Happy Man's psyche as well as fulfilling a scapegoat role for the Happylanders.

Place it in context:

This novel is the first and most familiar in a long-running series: while each book ostensibly takes as its focus a new protagonist, the Happy Man recurs throughout and through his relationships with other archetypes develops several longer story arcs. The series has had a positive reception over the years with several television adaptations and a second, feminised spin-off series to offset the male dominance of the canon.

Enforced happiness is a common trope within the utopia-dystopia science fiction subgenre. This novel draws heavily on classics such as Brave New World and has in turn influenced subsequent visions of the future: Equilibrium (2002) Demolition Man (1993) and The Happiness Patrol (Doctor Who, BBC, broadcast 1988) are particularly indebted. The latter is an inversion of the basic plot with the Happy Man replaced by the sinister Kandy Man who kills through excessive joy. Symbolic elements of this story have also been influential on their own: the spiral staircase separating the Happy Man from his Miserable counterpart is "borrowed" to great effect in GATTACA (1997.)

Give an honest reaction:

There's often a tension between optimistic and dystopic science fiction. This novel clearly falls into the first category. I enjoyed the plot with it's many twists but felt the optimism went a little too far, with the ending even hinting at totalitarianism. Is absolute happiness either achievable or desirable? In this society, even though the Miserable Man can be welcomed, he does in the process have to abandon his misery altogether: there's no room for either legitimate misery or for the blues. The Happiness Patrol at least ends on a different, more satisfying harmonica note.

You can buy "Mr. Happy" by Roger Hargreaves at all good bookstores.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Infinite Number Of Monkees Part II: Moon Child

There is one reason I am willing to forgive Micky Dolenz for his creation of Metal Mickey and it is this.

Luna, first broadcast in 1983 is one of the strangest sci-fi series ever to be fired from a CRT gun towards a phosphate glass screen.

Where to start? The date is 2040. In the Efficicentre, possibly the last human city after some pollution apocalypse, cloned humans live together in randomly allocated family units. You will be "obliviated" if you lose your e-passport and Luna comes dangerously close to this fate in the first episode. "Technotalk" is spoken, a language not unlike Orwell's Newspeak but designed to be easier for computers to digest. And teapots are outlawed. It's a dark, dystopic, brightly coloured, child-friendly sitcom: the bureaucracy of Brazil and the sinister social control of 1984 meet The Wonder Years.

This show was one of the defining memories of my diminibeing years, yet for a long time I thought I'd dreamed it. While the series apparently still exists in archive, it's never been repeated or released.

Where can you watch it? You can't. Certainly not here.

I was extremely happy to see Luna again. Not everything has aged well - the wobbly old-school Doctor Who-style set for one, and some of the gags are equally wobbly. But I think you'll agree that Luna is still very watchable, and the tone, the essential weirdness and 72 Batch 19Y's indomitable spirit all shine through. With thanks to the Lunaviron fansite.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Infinite Number Of Monkees Part I: Pedal To The Metal

If you had an infinite number of Monkees, and an infinite number of typewriters, then, given paper, ink ribbons, lots of WD-40 and sufficient time, would they eventually come up with some truly classic sci-fi television?

I was recently reminded by a fellow blogger of the many talents of Mickey Dolenz, the voicebox of The Monkees and the man responsible for:

"The four kings of EMI are sitting stately on the floor
there are birds out on the sidewalk and a valet at the door
he reminds me of a penguin, with few and plastered hair
there's talcum powder on the letter, and the birthday boy is there."

You may also have noticed Mr. Dolenz' recent cameo in Mega Python Vs Gatoroid. More importantly from a cultural perspective, he was the creator of this.

Metal Mickey is a progamme I remember from my childhood as being embarrassingly bad. Of course I was probably too young to pick up on the subtext, or to appreciate the subtle nuances of irony. However I have to acknowledge the iconic status of Mr. Mickey (the metal one.)

Mickey's quest to understand human emotion is a crucial sci-fi narrative that has perplexed Johnny Five, Marvin, the Terminator, DATA, O11iver and other great fictional robots. Mickey's LED heart is also echoed by GERTY's emoticon screen - could they be related?

Friday, 10 June 2011

Bad Girls Go Everywhere [Review: A Good Man Goes To War]

The Doctor's finest hour? Or his greatest fall?

The Doctor, backed by a rag-tag crew of companions and allies, takes on a powerful military-religious establishment to rescue Amy and baby Melody. Naturally the entire set-up is a trap ready to spring shut, and the evil Madame Kovarian is a serious threat. The Doctor is on the warpath, more violent than ever, at one point destroying a Cyberman fleet just to persuade their leader to cooperate with Rory. However the main story is the cat-and-mouse interplay between the Doctor and Kovarian.

This episode provides a lot of answers, not just limited to the story arc - in fact these are the least surprising twists. The Doctor's full name is finally revealed, at least for those of us who read Gallifreyan. I have been waiting for this since 1963 which is in itself an achievement since I wasn't born until the following decade.

The script is also full of red herrings and misdirections - is it wrong of me to say that I was disappointed to learn that Professor River Song is not a later incarnation of the Doctor? (This would have implied that relationships of this type are quite OK for Time Lords.) Madame Vastra and Jenny are a joy to watch and definitely spin-off material, and there are some truly memorable, utterly bonkers moments.

Rory (to Sontaran Commander Strax): "You're a warrior!"
Commander Strax (dying words, to Rory): "I'm a nurse."

In addition, it's clearer than ever that Moffat is bringing a much darker tone to Doctor Who: non-human deaths are emphasised, characters are given fake deaths over and over again, and interrogation, torture, humiliation, and slavery are constant companions. The new monsters are extremely sinister and the so-called Headless Monks are no exception.

Amy's treatment in this episode and, it turns out, the whole series, has been particularly cruel and there's an ongoing discussion about treatment of women in Doctor Who over at io9. OK. It could be worse - at least these days they don't get asked to do this [1:45]

[The Time Warriors, Sarah Jane Smith's first appearance.]

As a whole, A Good Man Goes To War was a daring and horrific episode, a real classic Doctor Who moment. But I don't buy the statement that this battle is the Doctor's finest hour, or his greatest fall - for all the climactic music it's still just another verse in the legendary ballad.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

I Can't Believe It's Not Vatta [Review: Moving Target]

Moving Target is the second novel in Elizabeth Moon's Vatta's War sequence. The delightfully psychopathic Kylara is stranded light years away from her family and homeworld with a loyal crew but a crippled spaceship, while the Vatta trading family and their allies, InterStellar Communications, are decimated in a series of attacks which also destroy the ansibles, the FTL communication devices that hold the various worlds together.

In the first novel Kylara faced down a series of enemies, including a shipload of mercenaries, with almost no weapons. This time she makes some effort to beef up the ship's defences but still has very limited resources, so she remains outgunned and has to apply brainpower and guts to come out on top. This is true underdog fiction and Kylara's plots and schemes continue to amaze. I can also report that the plot remains happily horse-free but points have been deducted for gratuitous puppy elements.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Blockbusters [Review: Attack The Block]

First a heads-up: Digging through the murky depths of YouTube a day or so ago I made a really exciting discovery which I have every intention of sharing presently. And no, it's not the Snake easter egg. Watch this space for further announcements.

We now return you to your scheduled broadcast. Attack The Block, directed by Joe Cornish, illustrates several current film trends:

The Resistible Rise Of Nick Frost: Also, when reviewing this movie, it seems comparison with Shaun of the Dead is obligatory so here goes. Attack The Block is a bit like Shaun Of The Dead in some ways.

Knife-Wielding Teenagers Are The New Mafia: I would single out Noel Clarke's films in particular for really developing this theme. Attack The Block has a similar gang setting, and there is some social commentary as the youngsters learn responsibility while the adults get their prejudices knocked about a bit, but this is not Kidulthood and most of the characters and situations are played for laughs.

Low Budget Is The New Mega Budget: Moon and Monsters proved you can do sci-fi on a shoestring, standing in a giant cat litter tray with a crew of six. Attack The Block has an understated concept: invasion on a tiny scale as aliens converge on a South London estate.

Aliens Are The New Robot Zombie Vampires: Those alien invasion movies just keep coming. Skyline, Battle Of Los Angeles, Battle: Los Angeles, Monsters, and there's more! soon Cowboys and Aliens, Super 8 and Apollo 18. And Bridesmaids. There's an interesting discussion about this trend over at io9 too. A nice touch is the way Attack The Block's monsters are minimalist or even impressionist in nature - their silhouettes are the exact opposite of Skyline's fractally detailed biomechanoids.

Return Of The Script: Also, trust your cast. Gareth Edwards' two leads improvised much of the dialogue of Monsters. For Attack The Block, the younger cast members re-wrote parts of the slang-heavy script, so the gangsters actually sound plausible* while Luke Treadaway's posh student is the one trying to fo shizzle and respek his way to unattainable street cred.

Television Is The New Film School: Mickey from Doctor Who, Moss from The IT Crowd and now Joe from Adam and Joe have all been at the helm of successful films. And good ones too. This is Joe Cornish's first feature (not counting Tufty Club) and it's a professional job: funny, fast-paced and very likeable.

*While it sounds plausible I should add that I have no idea whether this is authentic gangspeak or whether the joke is on us. Fo shizzle.