Review: The Fourth Wall

Posted: April 17, 2014 in Uncategorized

The Fourth Wall
The Fourth Wall by Walter Jon Williams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Running on an engine of great characterisation and wit, The Fourth Wall mercilessly skewers Hollywood’s star machine.

Sean Makin is a washed up child star with cheating parents, a dirty secret, and a desperate need to be adored. Among his problems is a physical condition that makes him appear somewhat freakish. Condemned to the lowest rung of the star ladder – appearing in reality TV show Celebrity Pit Fighter – when he’s offered the part of extra-dimensional alien Roheen in an international, serialised movie, he leaps at the chance, only to find murder and conspiracy are his wages.

Williams is at his best with Sean’s world. Sean’s an amusing guide to the tragic life cycle of child actors, with desperation cutting his residual arrogance nicely. Williams has a fantastic feel for life of set, and the passages describing the movie business and its impact on people are the book’s most effective parts.

The actual plot, a twisty murder mystery, is fragile, the denouement more so. And it’s not really SF. It depends on your definition, we suppose, but aside from slightly more advanced hardware and software and a couple of passing references to augmented reality, this is contemporary satire, right down the line.

But then, exploring the unrealised potential of existing tech is Williams’ forte. Although The Fourth Wall is not as pertinent as Deep State in this regard, the plot gives a reasonable enough frame to hang a bunch of excellent characters and observations from.

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I grabbed the chance to watch The Desolation of Smaug on Monday night. This is something my demi-Swede would like to see also, but I figured I’d happily watch it again with her. After driving back from Yorkshire I was in need of some telly time, and had been very much looking forward to the movie.

Damn shame to say, I was disappointed. I’ve read several reviews that rate this the better of the two Hobbit films thus far, but I reckon not. There are plenty of story choices I could pick apart here (Thirty orcs invade a city that becomes conveniently deserted for the sake of a fight! Smaug immediately guesses the provenance of Bilbo’s ring! Middle-earth is as easily travelled as it needs to be! The story suddenly shifts to a quest for the Arkenstone! Smaug the Golden has to be actually coated in gold! Repetition of the virtues of Athelas because we need fan-service winks! etc). I don’t want to write up a long screed that sings out “But it was different from the book! That makes it rubbish!” It does not. Cinema is different to literature. And my objections are personal, therefore their legitimacy is at the mercy of your judgment. After all, my dislike stems from one thing: The film Jackson made is not the kind of film I expected The Hobbit to become.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy was, on the whole, a meticulous and considered adaptation of the source material for the screen. Tolkien’s message, though much obscured, is still present. There’s an air of painstaking art about the books, and an air of painstaking art about their adaptations. The Hobbit adaptation feels altogether sloppier. Jackson appears to want two things: Firstly, to make an action movie, secondly, to provide a prequel to his Rings films. But The Hobbit, though blessed with action, would better suit an adventure movie not an action movie format, while the presaging of events of The Lord of The Rings − which I agree with in principle − proves clumsy.

As in Jackson’s King Kong remake, there is much to admire − in this case Smaug, the elves and Thranduil in particular were effective − but like the ape epic there’s altogether too much going on, too many ideas fighting for time, too many “wouldn’t it be so frickin’ cool!” sequences. There’s plenty in the book to make two good films, not three. Sadly, even in making three, Jackson eschews the opportunity the extra running time allows for character beats, filling up his minutes with bonus orc chases and people falling off things (like, come on! What is it with you man?). There is a fair bit of material in the second section of the book that didn’t make onto the screen at all, Bilbo’s role in particular is bizarrely sidelined. Odd, given that changes to the material in the first film appropriately gave his actions greater emphasis.

The biggest addition, Tauriel, I expected. Her almost-romance with Legolas I expected. And I was glad to see that actually, she worked rather well as a character. What I didn’t expect was the weirdly reciprocated infatuation Fili had with her, coming to fruition in his surprise sojourn in Laketown (what was that all about other than a way to give key dwarfs more to do?).

It’s a movie crammed with unlikely acts of superheroic acrobatics and clownish pratfalls, whose design − while awe-inspiring in parts − takes Middle-earth nearer to the whimsy of Hogwarts than the majesty of Arda. If I were to hazard a reason for all this filmic flimflammery, it’d be this: The Lord of The Rings series had effects that were groundbreaking. Their mere execution was enough to wow, leaving Jackon’s not inconsiderable talents free to work on other aspects of storytelling. Now such magic is commonplace, Jackson as a showman seeks to bedazzle us with added… Well, added things falling off other things, mainly. Or maybe he simply has the opportunity to do MORE COOL SHIT. Either way, all good ringmasters know three elephants are better than one. A perhaps apt analogy, because, let’s put it like this, this film is Legolas surfing the Mumak over and over again.

It probably needs a second viewing, this initial opinion may mellow, but I’m not so sure that I do want to watch The Desolation of Smaug again. (Sorry Emma).

As a last minor irritation, The Desolation of Smaug really quite unexpectedly

Review: The Science of Avatar

Posted: April 15, 2014 in Uncategorized

The Science of Avatar
The Science of Avatar by Stephen Baxter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Science fiction authors the world over will be thanking Baxter for this handy tome on the SF of James Cameron’s Avatar. Not specific simply to the film, Baxter’s book covers everything a modern writer of speculative space adventures might need to tell a convincing tale: quantum entanglement, relativity, eco-apocalypse, time dilation, super conductors, military tech, blue shift, red shift… And all in handy, easy-to-digest chunks. Baxter did it, so you didn’t have to type the words into Wikipedia. This is a dense wallop of edification for your research shelf.

The book does tackle those specific parts of Avatar which are not common to SF in general. Particularly engrossing is the exhaustive exploration of Cameron’s fictionalised Alpha Centauri system, from planetary formation right the way down to the way Pandora’s complicated magnetic fields affect its life and weather. It’s here that Baxter becomes coy. Granted full access to cast and crew, he never outright says “well, this is obviously nonsense”, even about flying mountains, although he does drop hints.

For Avatar fans, there is plenty of detail mined from Cameron’s backstory and universe, much of it unseen on screen. Avatar, flaws aside, is more rather than less rooted in actual science; this book reveals just how deeply.

Less engaging is Baxter’s non-fiction style. He’s a tremendous talent when writing stories, Baxter, and to his credit he conveys complicated concepts clearly here, but he lacks journalistic flair, and that just occasionally makes the book stilted.

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Review: Unrest

Posted: April 15, 2014 in Uncategorized

Unrest by Michelle Harrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Spooky goings on plague 17 year-old Elliot six months after a road accident sees him clinically dead for several minutes. Being cut loose from your body and menaced by ghosts is a tough break for any teen, but it gets worse when it looks like one of them wants to take his place…

Unrest delivers plenty of chills topped with a gripping twist. Harrison’s Elliott is neither too dorky nor too supercool, and although he’s maybe a little too “perfect boyfriend” (and therefore pretty unbelievable), Harrison just about keeps him on the side of real. There’s some factual errors involving antique guns, and the middle third of the story isn’t as gripping as the opening or the climax, but otherwise Unrest is deliciously creepy fun.

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Moving back to Yorkshire

Posted: April 15, 2014 in Random wifflings

I’ve been away for a few days in the land of my fathers (well, the ones that weren’t German or Lancastrian or southerners), where I’ll soon be decamping to permanently. That’s why no posts. There are many long periods when I do not post, but usually it’s down to work. This time it’s owing to ARGH! no! Stressssss. House move. Normal erratic service will resume sometime in May, I expect.

Review: The Company of the Dead

Posted: April 2, 2014 in Uncategorized

The Company of the Dead
The Company of the Dead by David Kowalski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Winner of two Aurealis awards when released down under back in 2007, The Company of the Dead is a subtle novel of counterfactual history.

In an alternative 2012, the world is about to be destroyed by war between the German and Japanese Empires. Joseph Kennedy, a cousin of JFK, discovers his entire reality is a should-never-have-been timeline created by the well-meaning meddling of an accidental time-traveller, and sets out to change it back.

Kowalski’s alternative Earth is lovingly crafted, inhabited by plausible characters all its own. Some historical figures are present and correct, but they are far outnumbered by original creations, refreshing in time travel SF.

This isn’t a book for everyone. Kowalski has a nice turn of phrase, but his poesy drags the pages out. The majority of the book is the story of Kennedy and his followers struggling to get to the time machine. Their adventure in time, where they return to the moment it all changed at the sinking of the Titanic, is a quarter of the story. It’s thus more akin to alt-reality thriller Fatherland than a time travel caper. For extra SF points, there’s effective use of time paradox, and the story also plays with the ephemeral nature of existence, and the possibility of a more actual version of history hiding just out of sight. It’s cruel to compare, but Philip K Dick did this more incisively in The Man In The High Castle.

A good book then, but not great

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