Wednesday 26 February 2014

The Machine - James Smythe

   The near future is grim: climate change has brought floods and now a heavy airless heat. Victor had come back from yet another war injured and violent but the doctors had promised to take away the painful memories using the Machine. Instead it had taken everything and Victor had been left a shell. Now Beth has managed to find one of the old Machines. She orders it online and delivery men place its massive bulk in the spare room, next to the bed. It’s the only place in the flat where it will fit. She’s going to reconfigure it and use it to rebuild Victor, her husband. She has planned meticulously. If only she can get Vic back they can face the violence, the fear and the memories head on, the way they should have done the first time.

  Smythe has crafted a taut, complex novel, heavy with fear and tension; a novel that explores the deceptions of memory and interrogates the stories we tell ourselves to endure. It’s a novel that frequently had my heart racing and storm clouds gathering over my head as I felt the dread of plans slipping out of control and the palpable threat of violence. It’s not often a novel evokes such a degree of atmosphere and mood. The long hot summer feels unbearably muggy and oppressive whilst the sense of threat on Beth’s estate adds to the claustrophobia. The narrator stays close to Beth throughout; the method allows Smythe to create another layer of tension because you are so close to Beth’s frustrations and anxieties, her headaches and her tiredness.

   The other great element is the machine itself. I’m not that well read in the sci-fi classics but I know enough to realise that Smythe has captured an important measure of the uncanny with his machine. It has an otherness; a power beyond human control and understanding that makes me remember echoes of Roadside Picnic and Rogue Moon. The slightly future Britain is brilliantly realised as are the physical descriptions of Beth trying to care for Victor. Furthermore Beth is a complicated character full of desire and frustration, but it’s the descriptions of the machine and its monstrous otherworldliness that lifts Smythe’s novel onto a different level of excellence. I finished it three nights ago and it’s still scratching away at the insides of my head. I can’t shrug it off.

  The Machine should have been on BFSA shortlist and I hope it makes the Clarke.


Friday 14 February 2014

Women in sci-fi


   In Autumn 2010 Tricia Sullivan noted that only one woman won the Clarke award in the noughties, compared with 5 in its first decade. In 2011 Damien Walter asked readers to name their favourite sci-fi titles. The response was this, out of 500 suggestions, 20 were by women - 4%! The debate spiked again last year with the all male Clarke shortlist, so over the last few years there have been lots of useful discussions about women in publishing and women's writing more generally (especially in sci-fi, fantasy and horror). 
   Here I want to start a list of useful posts, lists and websites (in no particular order):
Good discussions and lists here and here at Torque Control and a fabulous resource SF by Women, 2001-2010.

SF Mistressworks is a brilliant site full of excellent reviews

Great list here from Nina Allan.

Female Invisibility Bingo

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Book stuff

   I've read the first two books on the BSFA shortlist. Ancillary Justice is a rather good, exciting novel, full of ideas. The writing is functional rather than literary but Leckie is good at maintaining pace and expectation, good with the action scenes and good at the pseudo philosophical debates that deepen the themes around imperialism and identity. I'd happily recommend it to any sci-fi fan and especially to any movie fan, sick of all the brainless blockbusters that pass for sci-fi in Hollywood these days. There's a short piece by Ann Leckie here that explains some of her inspiration and an excellent review here.
   Unfortunately I can't recommend Ack Ack Macaque with any fervour. It has a pulp sensibility but without any of the pleausres, and challenges, that good pulp provides. Instead you get a fast moving story with a few good ideas. It's not awful - the monkey definitely has some good moments, and Powell is good at pace and action. It's a shame some of the writing is SO bad. Why (pet hate) include similies if they aren't very good?! I really can't begin to understand how this got on the shortlist - in fact it's a little depressing.

Also, a few good recent bits and pieces:

Tidhar-ViolentCenturyUKFirst, Steve Mosby on The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar, a book I enjoyed very much indeed (though Christopher Priest didn't).

Tolkien (and any fantasy) readers should read this by Amal El-Mohtar who has a cool blog too. Her review of Thor: The Dark World almost makes me want to see it.

Ashamed to say I've never read any of Nicola Griffith's work despite hearing great things about Ammonite and Slow River. Hild however will be read THIS WEEK and I'm very excited.

Strange Horizons also has reviews of two other books I'm looking forward to -Wolves by Simon Ings (Nina Allan loves it, as does Toby Litt) and Jeff Vandameer's Annihilation.

Ian Sales has a good blog with good book reviews and a series of posts entitled The future we used to have. The latest is very cool.

Bollywood so far

    Just a place to remind myself of the Bollywood films I've seen so far. Still got about 40 more on DVD to watch including some of the classics.
   But what do I really need to see?
1.    3 idiots (2009)

2.    Aiyyaa (2012)

3.    Bandini (1963)

4.    Bachna ae Haseeno (2008)

5.    Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007)

6.    Bombay Talkies (2013)

7.    Bunty aur Babli (2005)

8.    Chaalbaaz (1989)*

9.    Chakde! India (2007)

10. Chashme Buddoor (1981)

11. Chori Chori (1956)

12. Chori Chori Chupke Chupke (2001)

13. Dabaang (2010)

14. Delhi 6 (2009)

15. Devdas (2002)

16. Dil Chahte Hai (2001)

17. Dil se (1998)

18. Dil to Pagel Hai (1997)

19. The Dirty Picture (2011)

20. Don (1978)

21. Don (2006)

22. Dil Bole Hadippa! (2009)

23. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)

24. English Vinglish (2012)

25. Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (2012)

26. Ek tha Tiger (2014)

27. Fanaa (2006)

28. Guide (1965)

29. Ghulami (1985)

30. Honeymoon Travel Pvt Ltd (2007)

31. Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994)

32. Hum Tum (2004)

33. Ishquiya (2010)

34. Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012)

35. Jab We Met (2007)

36. Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na (2008)*

37. Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006)

38. Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001)

39. Kahaani (2012)

40. Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai (2000)

41. Kal Ho Naa Hai (2003)

42. Kaminey (2009)

43. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998)

44. Kuch naa Kaho (2003)

45. Lagaan (2001)

46. Lajja (2001)

47. Lamhe (1991)

48. Life…in a Metro (2007)

49. Lootera (2013)

50. Luck by Chance (2009)

51. Main Hoon Na (2004)

52. Mandi (1983)

53. Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (2013)

54. Mirch Masala (1987)

55. Monsoon Wedding (2001)

56. Mother India (1957)

57. Mr India (1987)*

58. Munna Bhai MBBS (2003)

59. My Name is Khan (2010)

60. Naseeb (1981)

61. No Entry (2005)*

62. OMG. Oh My God (2012)

63. Omkara (2006)

64. Om Shanti Om (2007)

65. Parvarish (1977)

66. Peepli Live (2010)

67. Pyaasa (1957)

68. Rab ne Bana di Jodi (2008)

69. Raja Hindustani (1996)

70. Rang de Basanti (2006)

71. Rangeela (1995)

72. Ra.One (2011)

73. The Rising: The Ballad of Mangal Pandey (2005)

74. Roti Kapada aur Makaan (1974)

75. Salaam-e-Ishq (2007)*

76. Satya (1998)

77. Seeta aur Geeta (1972)

78. Sholay (1975)

79. Shudh Desi Romance (2014)

80. Silsila (1981)

81. Talaash (2012)

82. Terre Zameen Par (2007)

83. Thakshak (1999)

84. Vicky Donor (2012)

85. Yaadon Ki Baaraat (1973)

86. Yeh Jawaani hai Deewani (2013)

87. Zanjeer (1973)

88. Zindagi na milegi dobara (2011)
*denotes films I really wouldn't want to have to watch ever again: only 5 out of 88 ain't too bad methinks. It's a real shame Shridevi chose such bad films (though maybe it was the era), because she always has fantastic moments but I still wouldn't want to have to watch Mr India all the way through again. Lamhe on the other hand was a ridiculous guilty pleasure!

Friday 7 February 2014

2014 BSFA Awards

 The short lists for the 2014 BSFA awards are out. The shortlist for best novel is exciting:

Best Novel

God’s War by Kameron Hurley (Del Rey)

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
Evening’s Empires by Paul McAuley (Gollancz)

Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L. Powell (Solaris)

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)

   I’m gonna try to read four of them:  I’ve read McAuley before so I’m sure Evening’s Empires will be very good/brilliant but it’s not out in pbk yet.

   Remember that last year the BSFA awards and the Clarke both courted controversy with their all-male shortlists so it’s good to see the inclusion this year of God’s War and Ancillary Justice. Hurley’s novel, released much earlier in the States, has been a site of controversy and critical debate, as well as much praise so I’m really looking forward to finally reading it. Leckie’s novel is getting LOTS of good press so that’s the one I’ve started with.

   The Clarke shortlist isn’t out until 13th March; the long list of submissions can be found here.

Thursday 6 February 2014

Iranian Films

   My first encounter with Iranian film was Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards, encouraged presumably by the reviews in the Guardian, at the Curzon Soho in 2000. Back then I had no idea about the New Iranian Cinema – pre or post-revolutionary, or the debates amongst critics. Since then many critically acclaimed movies have been shown at art-house cinemas (or had a DVD release) and now various classics and some of the early films of Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami, unavailable on DVD or blu-ray, can  be found online or via Netflix, whilst numerous books and essays map out the critical terrain.

   Many of the recent Iranian films shown and feted in the West don’t get shown in Iran and often rely on money from Europe for their production costs. Iranian cinemas meanwhile are full of Bollywood, Hollywood action and home-grown comedies and dramas. This raises a series of related issues - Laura Mulvey wrote this, just a year after A Taste of Cherry had won the Palme d'Or:

   “The new Iranian cinema emerged out of comparative isolation, enforced by international politics and the post-revolutionary censorship of non-Islamic art and entertainment. In parallel, however, the government has supported home-produced films that conform to the basic codes of Islamic cultural codes. These circumstances have turned Iran into perhaps the last completely cinephile nation, where a love for cinema flourishes in a way long forgotten way elsewhere. At the same time, the limitations on content and image have arguably contributed to a cinema that in formal and intellectual terms has caught the imagination of critics and film theorists outside Iran too – as Kiarostami’s movies have appeared, foreign art-film critics and audiences have responded to them as to a lost, no-longer-to-be-hoped-for object of desire. Godard is reported to have said at Cannes: “Cinema begins with Griffiths and ends with Kiarostami” (Sight and Sound, June 1998)

   Thus Western viewers will benefit from an awareness of the circumstances and history of cultural production in Iran; the impact of restrictions and censorship; the desire for art-films amongst Western critics (and their importance to the festival circuit) and the appeal, amongst cineastes, for the exotic and the obscure. It’s interesting too, that some theorists have been critical of Kiarostami for his lack of engagement with politics (see Farahmand in Tapper 2002) when for me it’s not just that (most) Iranian films manage to be, as Mulvey writes, “surprising, beautiful and cerebral” but political to their core, especially in their sensitivity to women, children, the poor and the marginalised, and in their formal invention. That might be because my experience has been mostly of the films produced since 2000 – those of Samira Makhmalbaf,  Jafar Panahi,  Mania Akbari, Shirin Neshat, Asghar Farhadi and of course, Kiarostami. It also begs a distinction between political critique and social critique. Some Iranian émigrés desire a more political cinema – one that openly criticises the Republic or that would “concern the competing factions in government, representing opposed ’ideological, charismatic, populist, and authoritarian’ views of the nature of political power. This seems a big ask: try to think of a list of contemporary British, American or French films that do that for instance. It certainly causes you to think about the power of art to influence change in repressive regimes and raises the old questions about art and propaganda.

   Many of the films of the New Iranian Cinema combine seemingly obverse characteristics - (Italian) neo-realist elements and self-reflexive, self-conscious (modernist) elements, to produce troubling, interrogative texts with innovative forms of cinematic language. Though that isn’t to suggest they are at all similar in form or tone or that they are ever boring.

   This month I shall be re-watching a number of films and hoping I can get friends to download a few I’ve never seen. I’m hoping others will take up the challenge and watch some films new to them too. To start off, especially if you’ve never seen an Iranian film, why not try Offside (Jafar Panahi 2006); easily available and cheap, it’s the best football film ever made (not hard) though you never see a football.

   I’d love people to watch a film or two and to provide questions and criticisms – if nothing else it would help me to broaden my critical perspective.

Mini Reading List –the online resources are perfect for a brief introduction.

·         Firouzan films – a good selection of essays and a good ‘to watch’ list!

·         Young and Innocent - very good background essay here.

·         McGill, H (2004) Iranian House Style – good Sight and Sound article (available online)

·         Naficy, H (2012) A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Volume 4: The Globalizing Era, 1984–2010 – bang up-to-date textbook full of good insights.
Tapper, R (2002) The New Iranian Politics, Representation and Identity Cinema – seminal collection of essays with a good intro by Tapper and a fantastic short afterword by Laura Mulvey.

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

   Winner of the Costa award for best novel (but not the overall award), shortlisted for the Women’s Prize (previously the Orange Prize) but not even on the Booker longlist, Kate Atkinson’s novel has perhaps underachieved after the significant hype and rave reviews on its release last January. Nor, despite its embrace by the sci-fi (and speculative fiction) community, was it submitted for the Clarke.

   Atkinson has flirted with the weird and the fantastic before, in Human Croquet (1997) and in her short story collection Not the End of the World (2002) so perhaps it's no surprise that Life after Life is a slipstream novel rich in metaphorical resonance. For those not familiar with the term slipstream it’s a little hard to pin down. Writer Bruce Sterling coined the term as “a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility,” probably situated somewhere between sci-fi and literary fiction. Atkinson’s novel fits because it uses an unusual device: the main character, Ursula Todd lives and dies several times. The novel, again and again, picks up Ursula’s life either at her birth or at some other juncture in her life. Such devices always signify a self-consciousness about a text and signal its metafictional properties.

   The novel’s subject matter is familiar - the massive changes (and weight of history) that occurred between the start of WW1 and the end of WW2. There is much here about the changes in women’s lives, the granulation of class relations and the experience of war; throughout Atkinson is brilliant – really brilliant - at evoking the voices and textures of life in the early part of the twentieth century.  There are lots of good reviews online though most find it difficult to write about the novel without giving big spoilers. The novel starts with a twenty-year-old Ursula about to assassinate Hitler though we aren’t sure if she succeeds. Then the novel goes back to the start of Ursula’s life on a snowy night in the winter of 1910. On its first iteration Sylvie, a comfortable middle class housewife gives birth to Ursula stillborn, the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck.  In the next chapter the doctor makes it through the snow and Ursula survives the birth. Then we begin to learn about the household; the servants Mrs Glover and Bridget; Ursula’s siblings Maurice and Pamela, her parents Sylvie and Hugh. In these early chapters Sylvie is the focus of the novel with brief insights into the young Ursula’s thoughts. In her fourth year Ursula dies and then the novel restarts.

   The UK’s greatest exponent of slipstream is Christopher Priest and in his customary old-school, slightly grumpy fashion he reviewed Life after Life. It’s one of the better reviews because I think it asks most of the right questions even if I don’t think he’s correct in all of his analysis. Nonetheless:

“This is a beautifully written book, the language precise, evocative, sometimes lyrical, sometimes referential, often witty,  sometimes even vernacular. You can open it at almost any page and you will find good English, plausible dialogue, well-balanced narrative, attractive passages of description. Kate Atkinson is an excellent stylist and this book is a pleasure to read.”

And he’s right; it’s all those things, pleasurable, compulsive and easy to read. After a dreadful Autumn of reading very little I read the book (600 pages pbk) in a few hours over 3 days. Reviewers of literary fiction in the broadsheets have given overwhelmingly positive reviews. Most praise the evocation of middle class family life and the scenes during the blitz as the standout features, whilst a few are less convinced by the episodes in Nazi Germany. Another criticises “a tendency to resort to excessive allusion and literary quotation” whilst Priest criticises the thin characterisation.  Instead I found Atkinson’s references to Donne, Marvell, Keats and Shakespeare just right for the tone of the novel and true to her characters. I’d agree that some of the characters are a little thin but sometimes mood, atmosphere and detail can be just as important as depth of character in conveying time, place and complexity.  Amanda Craig gets it right in her review:

“By returning to characters and incidents, she builds up an almost pointillist impression of her world. The personal merges with the political; by the end, the happiness and survival of the Todd family have become a matter of keen interest.”

Indeed it never feels like Life after Life is driven by the demands of plot, like most mainstream fiction, TV and movies. It’s the journey(s) that are important rather than the end point.

   The novel messes with your expectations. Initially you see that Ursula’s life gets a little longer with each section but that calculation is soon shattered as you realise that Atkinson is writing Ursula a series of different lives where she will never be the same person, depending on chance, on the decisions she makes, and the actions of others. The novel takes on another level of complexity as Ursula starts to experience déjà vu when she approaches challenging moments of her ‘other’ lives.  The reader has to ask whether this is ‘really’ happening rather than it being a structural feature of the text; if so, what can it mean?

    The fragility of lives (especially in war time), the impact of choices taken and not taken – on individual lives and greater historical events, are not uncommon literary preoccupations so I’ve been trying to discern why I found the novel so powerful and moving. I think the answer is Ursula. First there’s the central metaphor of the book – in an almost fairy tale-like-way she keeps coming back for more: she endures, and in the best of her iterations is open to the new possibilities opening up around her whilst sensitive to what is being lost. When in other sections life dishes out bleak and uncompromising alternatives, the reader feels the loss of her potential and her strength. Amanda Craig again:

“Ursula is in keeping with Atkinson’s previous angry, intelligent women survivors and avengers. Once she has made determined, repeated efforts to save the family maid, Bridget, and her little brother from dying of Spanish flu, we’re on her side. Each time, we are told how “darkness fell” but, each time, she is reborn.”

   I always try to be aware of my propensity for hyperbole so I won’t go overboard with praise. I don’t quite understand why for instance Atkinson wanted to start the novel with Ursula so consciously trying to change history. It makes you feel as though that is where the novel is leading us; to a final act of history-changing significance, and in a way it does. Yet the substance of the novel undermines such an idea: that this is what individual lives are for or can achieve. Instead it seems to show the importance of bearing witness to history and how it is collective effort and action that can make a (small) difference.  As you can see I’m still puzzling over it.  That said, I loved reading it and like all the best texts it requires and deserves a second reading. For anyone looking for a good book it’s a brilliant way to start 2014.