Monday, 28 June 2010

David Langford, Different Kinds of Darkness (2004)


Seeing as Dave Langford has won about a million Hugo Awards1, it may be stretching it a bit to say he's underappreciated. However, most of those Hugos have been for his (excellent) fan writing and his (excellent) newsletter Ansible: only one (for the title story of this collection) is for fiction, and, it seems to me, if this ratio was reversed that would be entirely justified, since Langford is, I think, One Of The The Three Best SF Short Story Writers Ever, Along With J. G. Ballard and John Sladek.

Despite the colossally cumbersome formulation above, that still might be thought a bold statement, but, to nick a title from John Clute, "look at the evidence": in this case, the book above, which collects much of Langford's serious sf from 1975 to 2003.

That word "serious" is possibly relevant. Langford is (rightly) highly regarded for his comic writing, and the wit of his remarkably long-running (and free) newsletter Ansible; and although there is (at least) one laugh out loud moment2 in the volume currently under advisement (in my case, his contribution to The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discretited Diseases, "Logrolling Ephesus", the contributor's biography to which begins, "Dr. David Langford had the good fortune to commit his researches at a period when relevant legislation had yet to be urgently passed"), he is also, I'd aver, a more or less peerless exponent of the straight sf story.

I can feel the words "examples abound" creeping up on me, but they do, you know...

The most famous examples here are the tales that make up the influential BLIT sequence ("BLIT", "What Happened and Cambridge IV", "comp.basilisk FAQ", and the Hugo winning "Different Kinds of Darkness"), which, via maths, terrorism, genuinely haunting and disturbing images, and pertinent points about information and childhood, detail the implications of a scary sf idea in a combined length of (think on this, fatnasty fans!) 28 pages...

Equally, "Waiting for the Iron Age", in just 4 pages (think on this fatnasty fans! -- you've done this -- Ed) sorts out the Wandering Jew legend in double quick time, whilst, as Langford says in his afterword, giving, "our man a longer run for his money than anyone else..."

Another thing with reviewing Langford, of course, touched on above, is his encyclopaedic knowledge of the sf world: if one were to, as one might, try to comment on the "The Motivation", by 'cleverly' mentioning the Christopher Priest-like nature of the title, and then try and draw a parallel with Priest's (very different) story "The Watched", one would find, on reaching the end of Langford's (excellent) story, that he's already there in his (as is typical in this collection) informative and splendid afterword. Heigh ho...

And what great titles, though! ("In A Land of Sand and Ruin and Gold"; "Blossoms That Coil and Decay"; "The Lions in the Desert" etc.)

Seriously, everyone should have this....

1 An exageration. Just!

2 I mean here the genuine laugh-out-loud moments that render you actually unable to speak even when reading alone, rather than as a shorthand for "quite funny". For more of these, see He Do The Time Police In Different Voices.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Tully Zetford, Hook: Star City (1974)


I have an unquenchable fondness for the sort of unpretentious (and short!) adventure sf and fantasy that used to be published, to coin that ghastly phrase, "back in the day." This means I also have an unquenchable fondness for the works of the late Kenneth Bulmer, who wrote more or less a million such yarns, most famously of course the Burroughs-influenced Kregen/Dray Prescott sword-and-planet series.1

For the Hook series2, of which Star City is volume three, Bulmer is hidden behind the "Tully Zetford" pseudonym. The hero of these books, the splendidly sweary ("By Dirty Bertie Bashti!" [100]) Ryder Hook3, is not a fellow to be messed with:

If a man tried to kill Ryder Hook, that man went in peril of his own life. [7]

Although he's not without his nicer qualities:
Like any civilised man, Hook drank tea whenever he could. [12]
It would be terribly ill-advised of us to let this fondness for tea fool us into thinking Hook is basically a gentleman, though; in many other ways he is a cad of the most unscrupulous kidney:
Apart from her legs, which Hook - being the ungraceful galactic adventurer he was would call short and fat if called upon to describe them - the lady Terifa was seemingly a most nicely fitted-together representative of the female section of Homo sapiens. [34]
Most importantly, though, the proximity of a Boosted Man confers on Ryder Hook special powers, which, for example, mean that when a homicidal maniac smashes him over the head with a giant steel bar, this happens:

The steel bar bounced. For any normal man that steel bar powered by all the dark ferocity of a homicidal maniac would have shattered his skull into bloody fragments. Blood and brains would have spurted past the splintered bones. But, then, Ryder Hook was not a normal man. [16]

Bet he still had a headache, mind.

My favourite bit in this book, though, is when Hook realises what spending time on Star City, which, as the blurb puts it, is a "mighty complex housing many thousands of humanoids devoted entirely to the pursuit of pleasure", has done to his ungraceful, hard-man space-adventurer demeanor:
Hook knew he'd been growing spineless and weak and a great ninny in star city. [100]
Great ninny! Ah, they don't write them like this any more, alas....

1 I was once surprised and delighted to come across a positive notice of this sequence ("this jewel of a series") in, of all things, a set of wargames rules. The Wargames Research Group's 1991 set Hordes of the Things, by legendary Phil Barker, Sue Laflin Barker, and Richard Bodley Scott, also, marvellously, includes relevant Army Lists ["IMPERIAL VALLIA: Hero General (Dray Prescott - typically in red loin cloth and loaded down with assorted swords and longbow, mounted on a nickvove or zorca.) @ 4 A.P"] I love it that I live in a world where that sentence exists.

2 For more Hookery, not to mention Lynan Synkery, see Dave Langford's sfx magazine column on Bulmer and Robert Sheckley here.

3 For more of Hook swearing, see Dave Langford, again. (Scroll down to "God's Hooks")

Monday, 21 June 2010

The Ship of a Billion Years (2006)


Well, this what we know....

That I really should stop saying I'm going to do stuff "next" or "soon", as I always forget: galactic cycles ago, in February, I said some things about Coming to Dust, the first part of Lawrence Miles's The True History of Faction Paradox audio series, as released by the stout fellows at Magic Bullet, and said that "soon" I would say things about this. Oh well.

Ship of a Billion Years picks up the story, straight from where Coming to Dust left off. Cousin Justine of the Faction Paradox has passed through the space-time tunnel to the titular Ship, while Cousin Eliza and the Society of Sigismondo try to find out more from their captives Jala and Merytra. Meanwhile, Sutekh is planning a coup....

There are many great things about this.

First, the dialogue, an aspect which is perhaps even more important than usual in a non-visual medium. Examples, as the cliche goes, abound, but to pick a few: when asked if Jala, their captive great ape is dangerous, Eliza replies, "Not now I've broken its legs." (This is actually a prelude to a genuinely rather harrowing torture scene [which in typical Miles fashion, begins nevertheless with John Pemberton feebly saying to the captive Merytra, "Believe me, we can be quite firm when we want to be!"] The switching from dark humour to genuine emotion in brief brush-strokes is splendidly done throughout.)

Julian Glover as the Osiran Lord Upuat gets the best lines, however. Justine has become his chamber slave, and at one point Upuat points out various other Osirans to her: "That's Bast. She's worshipped as a goddess of not following orders on some worlds. You'd probably like her. I think I had sex with her once. Left scratches on my pelt for days..." Later, after Sutekh, arch-villain that he is, has told him he must "submit or be destroyed", Upuat replies, "Hmm. I'm not keen on either, to be honest. Couldn't I just sit back and not interfere?"

One of the things that it's hard not to do with the Faction Paradox audios, which generally pre-date the current return of Doctor Who, is to list ideas that first appeared here and are done rather better than they were in the more famous TV behemoth that followed. To pick a trivial example, the formal tongue of the Osiran Court is like a more spooky version of Judoon-speak, and, much more importantly, there is the idea of a Time War. In the RTD-era Doctor Who, it seemed to me, there was no real sense that the Time War actually happened in four dimesions: often the images made it just seem like a space battle between the Daleks and the Time Lords. Here, after Justine has travelled through the tunnel to the Ship, her companions back on Earth try and find out what's happening to her now by reading ancient texts and legends -- one of the non "history-proofed" members of the Society reads a line from an ancient Greek text, then reads it again and doesn't notice that he reads something completely different on the second occasion. (Yes, I know that there is more sense of Time being a factor in the current series of Who, in the arc about Amy's crack [if you'll pardon the expression] but even so...)

Which leads to the other great thing about this -- the characterisation. In an interview he did years before these plays appeared, Miles said that (admittedly in the context of TV drama rather than audio plays) that the idea of "character-driven" TV was overrated, and that "great television runs on iconography, not on giving characters stock emotional problems and letting them drone on about them for hours on end." Certainly the Egyptian Gods of the Osiran Court are icons, here, but the other characters generate genuine emotion in the listener in a series of completely non-droney, excellently written touches, the prime example of which is the story of Corwyn and Astarte (a great performance from Patricia Merrick) Marne's eight-month old daughter. Rescued from the poisoned Faction Paradox race bank discovered in Coming to Dust, her adoptive parents find that she slips out of their memories, that her room sometimes briefly appears unfurnished and empty when they enter, and that, when they remember things they have done, their daughter is not present....

This is genuinely emotional and affecting, and so much more effective for being sketched in brief moments rather than dolloped about like (as it seemed to this ageing cynical fellow on his first viewing anyway) the rather over-done and shallow cry-now-dammitry of, say, that Van Gogh episode of the new Doctor Who....

Anyway, marvellous stuff, and we haven't even considered the hints and reversals in the latter stages. Not soon or next, but when I remember, then: Part 3: Body Politic...

Sunday, 23 May 2010

The Fat Cyberman Is Bigger Than The Houses

Some houses (left) and a fat cyberman [actual scale]

My daughter is now, just, old enough to appreciate Doctor Who. In other words, she loves all the different monsters and aliens ("I wonder how that monster attacks?"), and the idea of the Doctor and his friends saving the day, but the actual stories themselves don't yet mean a huge amount to her.

A good example of this is the 2008 Christmas special, The Next Doctor. When we watched this again together recently, despite the good things about it (those bits that involved Dervla Kirwan mostly) I was afterwards moved to deliver a lecture about the disappointing nature of the conclusion, where the Doctor, faced with a, well, rather odd sort of Cyberman plan, sorts things out with a magic wand. I'd barely even got into my stride when I was cut down by my daughter's observation: "Yes, Daddy, but the fat cyberman was bigger than the houses!"

She meant this as a compliment, of course, rather than to bemoan the way the CGI excesses and general bombastery can get in the way of actual good drama and stuff, but, especially perhaps with a Christmas special, who's to say she's wrong? Doctor Who plays to a vast stadium, not just the geeks in the front few rows now (as I think Paul Cornell once said, more or less) and whenever ageing fanboys like me say something about the new series that starts, "Yes, but hang on..." the young kids of today will riposte, "But the fat cyberman was bigger than the houses!" and crush us.

Still, as a friend of mine pointed out to me, this is actually a very useful phrase when it comes to describing something whose position on the quality spectrum may lie somewhere between meh and actively poor, but which, nevertheless, does at least deliver exactly what it says on the tin.

For example, the next time you're asked what you thought of Transformers 2, you can just say, "Well, the fat cyberman was bigger than the houses..."

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Lionel Fanthorpe, Galaxy 666 (1968)

Last Thursday was World Book Day.  I learned of this via the medium of a note from my daughter’s school asking if she could bring in a couple of her favourite books.  (We searched through her shelves and found a soon-to-be-topical-again book about animals searching for Easter eggs, and an old favourite about a bovine heribove with an acute upper respiratory tract infection.)

Later, I decided to enter into the spirit of the day myself, and picked something from the days when sf paperbacks would not only think a suitably blurred picture of something looking suspiciously like The USS Enterprise would do for a cover, but also have a full-colour piece of card stuck in half way through the book advertising cigarettes. (Kent Deluxe in this case, with “the famous micronite filter”.  If you have a taste for quality, you’ll like the taste of Kent, apparently.)

Yes, Galaxy 666 by the legendary and prolifically splendid Lionel Fanthorpe.

Here [p56] is the famous passage regarding the over-all impression of the colour of a bit of rock:

Between their own position and those two hillocks, there was an expanse of flat smooth rock, so flat and smooth that it was difficult to walk on.  There were pink-ish streaks among the rock, and it seemed that some of the chromatic tint from the atmosphere owed its origin to these.  There were a number of white veins in the rock, which bore some kind of resemblance to marble, but the majority of it was grey.  It gave an over-all impression of greyness streaked with pink and white, rather than an over-all impression of whiteness tinged with grey and pink, or an over-all impression of pink streaked with grey and white.

Greyness was the dominant background shade; neither black nor white, but something midway between the two.  It was a light rather than a dark grey, yet it could never have been so light that it might have been mistaken for an off white...

Later [pp 132-133] a character delivers a lengthy speech about cosmology, only part of which goes:

The whole universe is order; it’s a gestalt; it’s a pattern.  This galaxy is non-gestalt, an anti pattern.  This universe is the back of the tapestry, the discord in the music, the vortex of chaos at the bottom of the plug hole which allows the bath water to run peacefully away in an orderly fashion.  Without this the bath water would not be able to run...

After his lecture, the speaker, brilliantly, sums up with:

Do I make myself clear?

(Nicely, one of the other characters volunteers: “I think so.”)

Then there’s the enigmatic ending [p138]:

...but the strange enigmatical nexus between Korzaak and Ischklah remained as enigmatical as ever...

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The Oxford Companion To Sports And Games (1976)

This is the only book I own that I’ve literally read until it fell to pieces (three pieces, in fact, and the cover’s completely detached now, as well...)

Why? Well, it’s perhaps (actually it’s ‘almost certainly’, let’s be honest) hopeless and dewy-eyed and pathetically romantic to get all nostalgic about sport, but, damn it, I love sport, and this book gives off such a strong sense of sport as sport (as opposed to what tends, all too often, to fill the sports pages of (UK at any rate) newspapers: stuff about which football club currently has a winding-up order on it, or exactly which soccer players, who earn as much in a week as some people do in a decade, have unedifyingly been up to off the field...)

Even the Olympics aren’t immune: leaving aside for the moment any questions about awarding the 2008 games to China, there’s even been controversy about Canada’s “Own the Podium” philosophy in the current Winter Olympics, one of the last bastions, I’d aver, of “proper” sport left...The Summer Olympics are on a downward curve too, I think.

(To pick just one example, the cretins at the IOC, rather than sensibly add events to the women’s Olympic track cycling programme, so that there is gender equality in a sport where an Olympic medal still means something, are instead “equalizing” things by cutting both programmes, whilst simultaneously clogging the schedule up with nonsenses like tennis and golf, where the pinnacles of the sport are grand slam and major events, not the Olympics. It may keep the advertisers happy, but something vital has been lost, I think, and I tend, in my (hopeless) romantic way, to despair. [Aside: a brilliant post about the Olympics, and how they are, despite everything, still special, is, well, over there, on Sharon's blog.

Anyway. The Oxford Companion To Sports and Games.

What I love about this is:

a] its eccentric (and peculiarly British) comprehensiveness. The entry on FOOTBALL includes not only details of Association Soccerball, American Football, Australian Rules Football, Gaelic Football, and the various Rugby codes, but also Winchester College and Harrow Football, which are played nowhere else but at those English public schools...

b] it’s impossible to imagine now, as was the case when legendary John Arlott wrote his introduction in 1974, an editor of a companion or encyclopedia on sport saying, in his introduction, as Arlott does here, that the “first, and most important” editorial decision was to exclude blood sports. (And even then, they managed not only to include BULLFIGHTING [114 et seq] and COURSING [163 et seq], but mention in the entry for UNDERWATER SWIMMING pioneer COLIN McLEOD [561], that he was "captain of the British spearfishing team" between 1968 and 1971.) I mention this not because, in the real word, I'm in favour of such ‘sports’, or that, when I’ve finished typing this, I shall be donning my hunting pinks and charging across the countryside atop my trusty steed, but, it does, to some extent (maybe), hark back, again (and I can’t help myself, however unacceptable it is), to a more “sporting” age...(And yes, I'll accept it's not clear what I'm on about here. Something rubbishly vague about the Corinthian spirit and/or Hemmingway, possibly...)

c] Apart from entries on nineteenth century race-horses (and (really!) BLIND MAN’S BLUFF [71]), there are entries like this:

JOUTES LYONNAISSES is a traditional and localized French form of JOUSTING on water. The competitors are armed with wooden lances and carry wooden shields on their left arms. They are mounted on platforms raised above the stern of boats which are propelled towards one another and pass at close quarters…[481]

I want to do that!

Monday, 22 February 2010

Coming To Dust (2005)

Well, this is what we know...

It seems odd to imagine it now, but there was a time when Doctor Who wasn’t on TV.  After the series was cancelled in 1989, there appeared series of novels featuring first the Seventh, and then, following the Paul McGann TV movie, the Eighth Doctors.  (There was also (and continues to be) a series of Doctor Who audio plays produced by Big Finish, starring the previous actors who had played the Doctor.)

The best of the novels was (comfortably, I’d [probably] say, although that’s for another time) The Adventuress of Henrietta Street, by Lawrence Miles, and he also wrote most of the other good ones too, during the course of which he created Faction Paradox, a sort of time-travelling voodoo guerilla cult, whose base on Earth, brilliantly, is The Eleven Day Empire, the eleven days “lost” when Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar and September 2 1752 was followed by September 14...

Apart from the Doctor Who novels the Faction appeared in, there was also a separate series of novels from Mad Norwegian Press, two issues of a comic book, and, before we get to Coming to Dust, six previous audio dramas from BBV.

It’s not necessary to be familiar with all of this material to appreciate Coming to Dust though.  I say this with some confidence, since I’m not myself (I haven’t read the not-written-by-Miles novels, or heard the BBV audios, or read the comics, for example.)

In particular, by the time we arrive here, at Magic Bullet’s first part of “The True History of Faction Paradox”, the universe of the Faction its no longer part of the Doctor Who universe, or even really a spin off, but rather its own, original, and many-splendoured thing.

So, Coming to Dust.

Naples, 1763.  Three members of Society of Sigismondo di Rimini are suspicious that The Great Ape of Posto di Forragio (don’t you just love the names?) is not, in fact, a great big monkey, but something far more sinister, linked to ancient, otherwordly, evil.  (The interesting idea here is that the Mediterranean, apart from being a geographical focal point for civilization, is also an historical focal point). They decide to summon Faction Paradox...

The logic of poets and witch-doctors....

The summoning, rather than involving the usual science fiction (or at least Doctor Who) shenanigans like fiddling with wires or barking made-up technology, is accomplished via a ritual (which also, skillfully, brings those coming to the Faction for the first time up to speed.)  This also, in the context of the story makes more sense (aesthetically, which is what matters, after all) in this sort of “gothic” tale (I’ve put this word in quotes, as I’m not sure it’s exactly right but I can’t think of a better one at the moment), and although the tale involves gods (or “gods”) they are never pulled out of boxes, and the story is “fairer” in this regard than mainly latter-day Who episodes.

I’m trying to avoid spoilers until Part 2, but the adventure that follows the arrival of Cousin Justine and Cousin Eliza of the Faction, is tense, gripping, full of great ideas (like “the shadows that cut”, the “living” shadows capable of lethal action independent of the Faction agent they are bonded to) and ends on a suitably tense cliff-hanger...

There is also some great dialogue: after the three fellows from the Society of Sigismondo di Rimini have summoned Justine, one of them remarks, “Your aspect! Like a revelation; an avenging angel with a crown of fire!” To which Justine replies, “Has he never seen a woman with red hair before?” only to be told, “Yes...but he’s a poet.”

And the sound design is first-rate, from the genuinely chilling sounds of Sutekh invading a mind, to the moment that follows Merytra’s instruction to, “Open the window, please,” which will make you jump and then laugh with perfect timing, to the noise of battle...

The performances are great too, of which more under Part 2...

Shortly (-ish, and as long as I remember):  The True History of Faction Paradox Vol II: The Ship of a Billion Years (and maybe Part 3 as well), themes, spoilers, characterization versus iconography, and why Miles’s Time War is better than Doctor Who’s....

Friday, 19 February 2010

Rosie's Riveters -- Jaelle

One of the (many) great sections over on Aarti’s splendid Booklust blog is Rosie’s Riveters, a series of posts on riveting female characters in fiction.

My own (rather breathless) contribution, on Jaelle, from Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry, is here (though I recommend the others more!)

Who Watches The Watchmen?

Pausing only briefly to note my inability to avoid an obvious title, let us say, “Well, I do, now that it’s out on DVD” (though admittedly, in the UK, only thus far in a “Ha-ha, buy it again at Christmas with the extra footage and all the Black Freighter stuff edited in, you hopeless suckers” version. Boo.)

Anyway. (And, spoilers. And, a certain amount of comic-geekiness. Look away now if you haven’t (especially) read the comics.)

As I sat down to watch the UK single-disc edition (as usual, Alan Moore didn’t want to be associated with the film version so the credits rather grandly say it’s based on “the graphic novel co-created and illustrated by Dave Gibbons”) I made a bet with myself that Leonard Cohen’s marvelous song “First We Take Manhattan” would appear on the soundtrack. Happily, I collected from myself, even though I had to wait long enough into the closing credits that I’d almost given up...Indeed, the soundtrack (well, mostly: the use of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” over the sex scene, is, I’d aver (and by no means originally) a bit heavy handed and misjudged) is one of the best things about this in many ways brilliant film, even without Elvis Costello’s “Absent Friends” over The Comedian’s funeral...


Not the least astounding thing about this film is the quite extraordinary open letter David Hayter (who, with Alex Tse, is one of the two credited screenwriters) wrote after the first reviews were in, which I somehow feel compelled to state I only came across after I’d seen the film. Addressed to the “fanboys and fangirls” it says, inter alia:

All this time, you’ve been waiting for a director who was going to hit you in the face with this story. To just crack you in the jaw, and then bend you over the pool table with this story.


Trust me. You'll come back, eventually. Just like Sally.

Jesus H. Christ. (On a bike.) [And then some.] This goes straight into my Top 2 of Times When Authors Really Should Have Kept Quiet, along with Anne Rice’s absurd rant on after the publication of Blood Canticle. (Sorry, I really can’t be arsed to check if the full thing is still there...)

The Film

Before continuing, it’s only fair to say that Hayter apologized, saying, for example:

First off, let me apologize for my metaphor. I am certainly not advocating violence against women of any kind. My sole intent was to reference one of the most complex, controversial and interesting issues in the story...

But, not a good start, is it?

Talking of which, why make a film of something so quintessentially a comic in the first place? It seems mad, although Zack Snyder, director of comics-adaptation 300, surely one of the maddest films ever made, was surely the man for the job if it’s going to be done, and often, most especially in the credits sequence set to Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changing”, this is quite brilliant, and almost absurdly faithful.

If anything, though, this (in many ways utterly admirable) faithfulness (often it seems as if he’s literally shooting the comic panels) serves to highlight the things you miss (in particular the lack of the Black Freighter stuff (see “boo” above) perhaps make Veidt a more generic-obscurely-motivated bad guy than was the case in the comics) and to make you obsessively compare the film version to the comics. (And, parenthetically, to note just how much more violent faithfully transposed fights from comics panels seem in a live action format...)

For example, the transposition of Dr Manhattan’s remark that, “A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles, structurally there’s no difference” from Chapter I of the comic (during his conversation with Rorschach at the Rockefeller Military Research Centre) to his TV interview (Chapter III of the comic), so the subject of the statement is no longer The Comedian but rather (amongst others), Wally Weaver, perhaps make the character seem self-obsessed and, well, a git, rather than simply distant; as does the film’s version of his redemption on Mars, which here comes without Laurie’s remark in the comics that if she’s a “thermodynamic miracle” then so is the birth every human being on earth, an addition which Dr Manhattan admits is the whole point. (On the other hand, the loss of Laurie’s rather just to be sure line: “Did the costumes make it good?” from Chapter VII doesn’t seem to matter...) [Christ, I seem to be taking issue with Alan Moore’s writing with this last one. I certainly don’t mean to: he’s one of the few people I’d seriously think of applying the word “genius” to. Heigh ho.]


As for the ending, initially I preferred the edgy, paranoid ending for Dan and Laurie of the comic, but the more I think about it, the less decided I’ve become...

I don’t know, I’ll make my mind up after the proper edition comes out, I think.

[Oh, what a cop out! :-)]

Oh, and despite the rather C. Bale Batman-esque gravelly voice stuff, Jackie Earle Haley is brilliant as Rorschach...


Contact is a funny old film, isn’t it? Now, although I yield to no-one in my admiration for Carl Sagan, when, following an (even now) stupefying advance, his science fiction novel Contact appeared in 1985, I didn’t read it. When “big names” produce science fiction novels, it is sadly often the case that what they think is original and interesting is actually something that had been considered and written about far more skillfully decades ago by, well, sf authors in fact. (Examples, as they say, abound, but consider the sf works of P. D. James, Martin Amis, Robert Harris, Margaret Atwood, Paul Theroux (screw your courage especially tightly to the sticking place if you try his O-Zone [although this wiki link is totally unhelpful, I like it as it possibly the most tactful wikipedia entry ever...]) etc. etc. etc. ad vomitorium, and then read earlier works by Brian Aldiss, Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard, Arthur C. Clarke etc. etc. ad infinitum.)

Anyhoo, although I didn’t read the book, when Robert Zemeckis’s 1997 film made it to DVD I did watch this, because, well, to be honest, because Jodie Foster is in it, and I think she’s brilliant (good grief, I reasoned, I even watched Dennis Hopper Alan Smithee himself while playing the saxophone in Catchfire because Jodie Foster was in it, so watching a film based on a work of Carl Sagan could hardly be a waste...)

So. The funny old business (I think) isn’t the usual complaints of the (it’s true) horrible cop-out nature of what happens when Ellie goes through the wormhole (I tend to think the film, having, as it does, a supporting cast that boasts underrated and splendid people of the calibre of David Morse and William Fichtner, probably has enough going on to be interesting even with this handicap), but that the whole thing seems to be a hymn of praise to NOMA (indeed, at times it comes perilously close to endorsing other ways of knowing claptrap.)

Obviously I must admit a personal bias here (for reasons we’ll come on to, I subscribe to Richard Dawkins’s views of NOMA), but a couple of moments in the film are particularly telling:

At a Washington reception, the Jodie Foster’s character and the warm and fuzzy religious type played by Matthew McConaughey are debating Occam’s Razor and the likelihood of the existence of God.

“Your Dad, did you love him?” asks McConaughey of Foster’s character’s late father.

“Yes,” she replies, “Very much.”

“Prove it” says the McConaughey character, with a finality that suggests, if not Sagan, then at least Zemeckis or screenwriters James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg think it’s a killer point. Rather than let Foster’s Dr. Arroway argue the point however, the scene is now interrupted by both character’s mobile phones going off, canceling the chance for any further discussion.

Later, at the congressional hearings at the end of the film, much is made of the fact that Arroway has no “physical proof” of what happened to her, and that it would be unrealistic of people to take her explanations “on faith.”

Now, we should doubtless be generous here and decide the reason this sort of thing isn't thrown straight back in the face of religious beliefs is because the point is too obvious to need spelling out, but at the end of the film, before getting into a taxi with Dr. Arroway, the McConaughey character says:

As a person of faith, I’m bound by a different covenant that Dr. Arroway. But our goal is the same. The pursuit of truth.”

And Arroway reaches out and holds his hand. Contact indeed. That Zemeckis thinks this is a key point is clear from his commentary with producer Steve Starkey, where they say that religion and science “can go hand in hand.” Even Foster, on her commentary, says that religion and science can embrace each other and that “they don’t have to be so different,” and that “people can have opposing views and they don’t have to be in conflict.”

Argh. Let us leave the question about how there might be no conflict (however splendid and benign) between opposing views, and let us, at least partially, forgive Foster, since she says, marvelously, at the end of her commentary, “Isn’t it wonderful, and wondrous, how much we don’t know?”

But, back to this NOMA business.

To quote from the excellent post of Steve Zara’s I’ve linked to above, “It isn't just that theistic religion can't compete with science in understanding certain aspects of reality. It is that it has been shown to be of no use in understanding any aspects of reality at all. It has not provided understanding - it has imposed dogma, which has had to be rolled back in the face of falsification.”

As for the question of how you prove that you love, or are loved by, someone, that the film seems so desperate to dodge: well, along with the traditional “how can you have morality without God?” chestnut, I find this possibly the most fatuous pro-religion argument ever conceived. There is the basic point that the question of whether or not you love (or are loved by) someone or something is a totally different question to whether or not that person or thing exists: only one is a truth claim about objective reality etc. etc., and it really would perhaps be an egg sucking lecture to go on and on about this. (The point is considered further here and elsewhere.)

The Dark Knight

Although I'm very much a fan of the brothers Nolan, and an admirer of many superhero comics, I’m not, on the whole, a fan of superhero films (or at least, given that nowadays almost every one of them (even The Fantastic Four!) seem to spew forth a franchise, the first superhero film in a series) since I find the pathological insistence such films have in detailing the "origin story" of the hero in such loving slowness, is either a] stupifyingly tedious if you're already a fan, or b] of more or less no interest whatsoever if you're not.

(At the risk of handing everyone who takes exception to anything that follows a stick to beat me with, I find an exception to this rule is DareDevil, which I really rather enjoyed and think oddly underrated; but I'd rather drink lager (ugh!) than watch the recently opened Wolverine film, which, as far as I can tell, seems to be a whole film of origin story (as well as being, for heavens sake, a prequel: an origin story with no possibility of suspense! Do you have any film of paint drying instead, my good man??)).

I therefore carefully avoided watching Batman Begins, Nolan’s reboot (to use the ghastly and unacceptable word) of Gotham City’s finest. (Not that "not watching a film" requires a tremendous amount of care, let’s be honest).

However, following the acclaim generally heaped upon The Dark Knight, I found I was increasingly tempted to watch this second film, and finally succumbed this weekend after realising that Maggie Gyllenhaal is in it. (This wasn’t a result of neanderthal lechery (though she is gorgeous), but because I think she's a splendid actress, who's been great in everything I've seen her in. Hmmm. Does that sound a bit like protesting too much, I wonder? Ah well...)

Anyway, The Dark Knight.

As it's been out a good while now, on DVD as well as theatrically, I have not shied away from spoilers in what follows. So, if you don't want to know the score, look away now! Act without thinking!)

Here we go then: Gosh, a bit long, isn’t it?

Let’s get one good thing that is possibly due to my aging nature out of the way straight away. Increasingly, I find the modern tendency to cut action scenes into ludicrous, tiny, impossibly hard-to-parse little pieces increasingly frustrating; but not only is it possible to understand what’s going on in The Dark Knight’s action scenes (which are often commendably "real" rather than computer generated), the CGI, when it occurs, looks a lot more real, and a lot less like a preview for the computer game, than anything similar in (say) any of the Spiderman or Matrix films...(Exercise for the student: watch an action scene in The Dark Knight. Pause the DVD and write down what has happened. Then, try the same with, say, anything in the first Tomb Raider film...)

Anyway: I liked the prologue: though bank heists and the "the mob", are, I think, generally colossally tedious subjects for superhero films, the whittling down of the heist team ("No, I kill the bus driver!" &c.) feels like a [dark] comic, as does the dialogue ("Where did you learn to count?!" etc). Hooray, I thought...

But...There are a few worrying moments thereafter though: the most tedious thing it’s possible to image, not just in superhero films, but, indeed, in any drama come to that, is the ‘evil double’ version of the hero. Happily though, this potential nightmare is swiftly turned on its head and revealed not to be a major plot point (and neither is (just about) too much time given over, later, to the equally coma-inducing standard of "the hero must give up his life of vigilantism..." As an aside, in the interests of balance, when this comes to a head I did rather enjoy the appearance of the potentially fatally cheesy line, "The [K]night is darkest just before the dawn...")

Anyhoo, back in the film, shortly thereafter the viewer is forced to wonder, as the action removes itself from Gotham City to Hong Kong [following scenes, so help us, involving women in bikinis on a boat and Morgan Freeman’s Q showing Bruce Wayne his latest gadgets, (while not omitting to advise him to "read the instructions")] whether, given that James Bond is now trying to be Jason Bourne [1], Batman is now trying to step into the breach by attempting to be James Bond. Happily, again, Nolan drags everything back from the brink.

Now, to repeat myself, I like the Nolans, and I’m sure all this is the clever teasing of clever fellows, but, we have to ask, why? It’s not as if the film was too short, let’s be honest...To be fair, to pick an example of this sort of thing that I actually liked, there’s a scene early on where the Joker explains his scars as being inflicted by his drunken and violent father. Now, while it’s obviously possible to break apart the superhero form and uncover the bloodied and soiled ratchets and cogs underneath the lycra and steel (Watchmen is the obvious example – the comic at any rate, I’ve not seen the film yet), this early scene does make one fear the Joker is going to be motivated by some bog-standard "traumatic incident from the past, ideally childhood" form of Hollywood motivation, which (however psychologically truthful it may be) is another thing, I’d argue, that you don’t necessarily want taking up running time in a superhero film. (I’m reminded of something author Lawrence Miles once said about the first Spiderman film. I don’t have the exact quote with me but it was something along the lines of “you’re forced to wonder why they didn’t start with the climactic battle and then go on and do something interesting.") Anyway, when the Joker later on gives a completely different explanation of his scars to the lovely Maggie Gyllenhaal, I literally cheered...

Understandably enough, much of the comment on The Dark Knight has focused on the late Health Ledger’s performance as the Joker [2]. As he always was, he is good, but kudos must also go to the Nolans for managing (I think) to walk the possibly treacherous tightrope between portraying the Joker as a damaged anarchist with a death-wish, whilst without straying too far beyond the realms of comic-book film and attempting to say anything too profound on the nature of criminality. (And, especially as we’ve mentioned Watchmen already, we should perhaps send a nod towards Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, here).

Overall then, better than I was expecting, though before we leave there is one more huge ‘but’ to consider. (Hmm. I paused for a moment here and wondered whether to make an obvious butt "joke", but, happily, I’ve thought better of it...)

Anyway...but. To some extent, the whole bloody film is an origin story for Two-Face. If you’ve never heard the name "Harvey Dent" before, this probably isn’t a problem, as there’s enough else going on; but if you have, it’s incredibly distracting wondering what they’re going to do with this: and ultimately, just as you’ve thought, “Well, at least if he’s going to be the bad guy next time out, at least they won’t have to go through his again,” they (it appears, at least), kill the bugger off...

Finally, I watched this via the medium of a bargain DVD (which was nevertheless, naturally billed as a "special" edition) without many extras. It did however, include amongst the special features all the IMAX scenes, and I dutifully watched these on a tiny portable TV, which, I like to think, must qualify as one of the most spectacular wastes of time yet conceived...


[1] Personally, I don’t actually subscribe to this view that the Bond films are trying to be the Bourne films, but, for the purposes of (just about) making a point, I have here pretended for the space of a sentence that I do...

[2] Perhaps oddly, his portrayal of the Joker as a colossally damaged person who no longer cares whether or not he lives reminds me more than anything of Christopher Eccleston’s portrayal of the Doctor in the 2005 revival of Doctor Who, but that’s probably something for another time...