Sunday, July 21, 2013

Books for May/June

The NZ national SF convention has been and gone, the Sir Julius Vogel Awards have been presented.  Despite my best efforts, I didn't manage to get all the nominated works read ahead of time, although that's more down to not being able to lay my hands on them quickly enough than to lack of time on my part.  Readers can clearly see below that I managed to read plenty of other books during May and June.

So basically the key learning for future years is that I needn't expect to be able to read the entire shortlist before voting, and I may as well allow myself to be led by other people's recommendations, by what's available to me at the time, and by my own desire to read other stuff.

To my continuing surprise, the Best Novel award went to what I'd pegged as the worst of the six nominees.  On the other hand, just look at who they gave the Best Fan Writing award to - honestly, they'll let anyone in these days.  Here endeth the self-promotion.

For reasons of brevity, the list below doesn't include SJV nominees that I started but gave up on, of which there were at least three.  For reasons of simplicity, I've just lumped both months' books in together, more or less in order of reading, and then split the SJV books out and put them all up front.

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Growing Disenchantments, KD Berry
Comic fantasy, off-the-shelf material but competently used.  Various familiar character types try to get their hands on a painting of a powerful old wizard; the painting, of course, has its own plans.  Unusual inclusion of a time-travelling character, although it's explained in context.  Of the Best Novel shortlistees, I would have said this ought to rank somewhere in the middle.

Don't Be a Hero, Chris Strange
Superhero story set in a world where Auckland was devastated by a nuclear bomb during the tail end of superpowered World War II.  The wealthy live in shiny, futuristic Neo-Auckland, while NZ's superheroes, aggressively regulated by international accords, inhabit the decrepit slums of the old city.  Two of the good 'uns struggle in spite of this to save NZ from the machinations of a mysterious new villain.  This was a fantastic story, great characters, author quite willing to kill off favourites if the story required it, good writing.  One tiny niggling problematic area if I really wanted to be picky, around the use of a transvestite villain character, but it's arguable.  Moreover, this was the only Best Novel nominee that actually related to NZ in any way at all - granted, that's not a requirement for the SJVs, but it's just nice to see.  I really thought this one was head and shoulders above the other nominees, but the voting public at large disagreed.

The Enchanted Flute, James Norcliffe
Nominated in the Best Youth Novel category.  Nominally set in NZ, but could as easily have been written/set in the UK.  Talented girl from not very wealthy family finds a cheap flute in a pawn shop, only to discover that it magically possesses her fingers and will only allow her to play one tune - Debussy's "Syrinx".  (A clue, a clue!)  Despite lack of real connection between turn-of-the-20th-century French composer and ancient Graeco-Roman myth, the heroine soon finds herself transported to Fantasyland and reliving the story of Pan and Syrinx, herself cast in the role that doesn't come with horns or goat feet.  Good modern youth fantasy, with some surprises.






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Celestial Battle, Book One: Dark Serpent, Kylie Chan
Review book.  Link to follow once I've written the review.  I'm not entirely sure why I asked for this book - it looked kind of interesting in synopsis, but I really should have clocked the warning signs.  This is absolutely, positively the last time I put myself in the position of reviewing a genre-flavoured romantic doorstop written by/for excitable middle-aged women.

The Spiral Labyrinth, Matthew Hughes
Hespira, Matthew Hughes
Books 2 and 3 in the series that began with Majestrum.  Henghis Hapthorn, rational science detective in a universe tilting towards the resurgence of magic, finds himself (and his other self) dealing with megalomaniacal super-sorcerous fungus and a mysterious amnesiac woman.  Once again, tip-top stuff.

Dial H, vol 1: Into You, China Mieville & Mateus Santolouco
So DC have streamlined their monthly output to a sleek dozen or so different flavours of Superman, ditto Batman, half as much Justice League and a handful of other titles.  As part of this spring clean, they've got China Mieville in to write (and Mateus Santolouco to draw) a relaunch of freaky '60s title Dial H for Hero.  This is probably the smartest thing they've done in years; it's kind of a shame they couldn't have taken a punt on a few other unusual writer/title combos while they were about it.  I suppose the world needs its multiple monthly Superman titles, tsk.  Being the politically minded chap he is, Mieville isn't content merely to play with the surreal trappings of the premise - magic dial allows its bearer to temporarily become a superhero, but with no foreknowledge of what the hero's identity/powers will be - but wants to explore the possibilities and ask probing questions.  Does the male protagonist actually need the dial to be a hero?  Is it a big deal if he dials up a female super-identity?  Can he, should he go out and save the day if his super-identity is offensive (example used: grotesquely stereotyped Red Indian hero that actually appeared in the '60s comic)?  Just where do those identities come from?  New favourite comic book title.

Scud the Disposable Assassin: The Whole Shebang, Rob Schrab
Finally, I get to read the rest of the Scud story!  Surreal, fast-paced ("hyperkinetic" is the word usually used) indie comic about a vending machine robot assassin that spots the "will explode after killing target" disclaimer on his back in a mirror and decides to only maim his target, survive and go freelance.  Ran for many, many years with long gaps in publication, and for various reasons I only ever managed to get hold of collected vols 2 and 3 - roughly the middle part of the story.  For that reason I'd previously only been exposed to the wonderful surrealism of Scud, and not the highly problematic gender attitudes that emerge in later issues.  (Schrab went through two breakups during the course of working on the series, which undoubtedly fed through into the story.)  The back end of the book collects four more recent issues that wrap everything up, perhaps a bit too neatly.  I'm glad to have read it all at last, but I'm not sure if I'm better off than I was before.

Diversifications, James Lovegrove
Shelve this alongside Jeff Noon's latest.  Lovegrove is another author whose earlier books I loved - he's got a good eye for wit and wordplay - but where Noon went underground for a decade between books, Lovegrove diverted his efforts to writing serial genre fantasies for younger readers.  Here, for older readers, is a collection of short stories that spans pretty much his entire career - there ought to be more stuff in here that I like, and yet I'm underwhelmed.  It's possible that all the best stories went into Imagined Slights, leaving the second best for this volume.  Or I could just be getting prematurely old and grumpy.

The String Diaries, Stephen Lloyd Jones
Review book.  Again, link to follow.  Short version: I liked it.  A well-crafted character-driven horror story.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Books for March/April

Time for another bi-monthly book round-up.  Since the last update, the shortlist for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards has been released; reading as much of the shortlisted work as possible before the convention in mid-July now becomes a priority, or at least, it did as of mid-April.


The Secret Files of the Diogenes Club, Kim Newman
Characters familiar from The Man from the Diogenes Club and from Newman's Anno Dracula books pop up in this collection of loosely-linked stories that start in the Victorian era and run through to the 1970s setting familiar from the previous volume.  As usual with Newman, much entertainment ensues.

The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, ed Sean Wallace
Now available in a conveniently un-mammoth pocket paperback format.  A large, varied and extremely good collection of reprinted short stories that could arguably be called steampunk.  A couple I'd seen before, a pleasing and surprisingly large number written by authors I hadn't tried before and whose work I ought to investigate further.  Sadly, not many of those have had books published, which would make it easier to follow them up.  Catherynne M Valente is one I probably should have checked out before now.  Aliette de Bodard's Aztec detective novels were an obvious purchase, and they're first on the to-read list as soon as I get past review books, SJV nominees and borrowed items.  Margo Lanagan has had several anthologies published, but it looks as though further research is needed before I can decide which of them to start with.

Majestrum, Matthew Hughes
Borrowed on recommendation.  Hard to sum up briefly: it's set in the very far future, at a time when the universe is about to make one of its many cyclical transitions from physical laws to magical laws; the protagonist, Henghis Hapthorn, is the known cosmos' most famous detective, but he's had an early and life-complicating taste of the magical age to come thanks to a previous case that involved him being pulled through a dimensional portal, as a result of which his intuitive side has become a distinct persona inside his head and his personal organiser has been transformed from a machine to an ape-cat-hybrid familiar creature with an addiction to expensive fruits; he's hired by the Archon, the ultimate ruler of all humanity, to investigate the theft of several museum pieces that date from an earlier age of magic and whose disappearance may signal the return of a powerful tyrant.  It's very, very good, and two follow-up novels have been borrowed and are in the stack.

So hooray, an entire month of really good books!

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Warrior: The Amazing Story of a Real War Horse, General Jack Seely
Birthday present.  An interesting item - actually a recent reprint of a book originally published in the 1930s, all about a horse that survived four years of action in the First World War, went on to win races and generally lived a life other horses can only envy.  The title should probably have been Spawny Get: The Jammy Story of the Luckiest Horse Ever; Warrior charges to glory in some of the thickest battles of WWI, storming German machine-gun emplacements and receiving nary a scratch, yet with uncanny foresight he manages to get sent back to HQ with a turned ankle the day before anything really unavoidable goes wrong.  "Gosh," thinks Gen Seely as another horse is blown up underneath him, "what a lucky thing dear old Warrior stumbled over that flint yesterday."  The book is littered with such instances.  Overall a good read, and although the writer of the foreword to the current edition felt the need to apologise in advance for outdated material, no such apology was really needed.

Empire State, Adam Christopher
SJV nominee.  A tale of detectives and superheroes in a strange parallel version of Prohibition-era New York.  This one was serviceable but not spectacular, a passable first novel.  Certainly the front runner of the Best Novel nominees I've read so far.

Tropic of Skorpeo, Michael Morrissey
SJV nominee.  Gonzo pulp stuff.  I got 80 pages in, just over a third of the way through, and had to give up.  The first few chapters were kind of enjoyable, then it all got bogged down in prurient scenes of fantasy erotica that just got too damn wearing.  Was this written by a schoolboy or what?  And yet I'd still probably rate it above Queen of Iron Years.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Books for Jan/Feb 2013

Who is the Doctor, Graeme Burk & Robert Smith?
Reference/critical book that covers the 21st century series of Doctor Who, from the 2005 relaunch all the way up to the end of the 2011 series.  I'd say these guys have got the drop on Mad Norwegian Press' About Time series (tardy, Mad Norwegian, very tardy), but in truth the analysis here isn't nearly as deep as I'm hoping it will be in the very long-awaited AT volume 7.  No thought-provoking side essays, for a start.  Certainly enjoyable and well-argued - I even found myself agreeing with a lot of it.

The Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi
Highly acclaimed SF debut that I completely failed to get along with.  Several write-ups have pointed out that the book doesn't compromise on info-dumping and expects the reader to work out for themselves much of what's going on - this is true, and it's not at all the problem I have with the book.  It's purely a character thing.  Bluntly, I like novels to have them.  Got 100 pages in, didn't feel that I knew or cared who anyone was or why they were carrying out their post-human space-opera heist, gave up.

The Aviator, Gareth Renowden
NZ publication, apparently self-published, borrowed and read because it was SJV Award nominable.  Damnedest thing, I got 100 pages in and gave up again.  The protagonist is a zeppelin chauffeur and housekeeper for a multinational capitalist; in the wake of global eco-collapse and his boss' disappearance, he's also heir apparent to the zeppelin, the NZ bolthole, and the rest of the whizzy AI-governed empire.  He globe-trots in search of his master before giving him up as lost and taking up a new job running trade between isolated pockets of civilisation.  There were some ideas in here, some of them interesting, but no sense of any kind of peril.  Stuff would happen, stuff would un-happen, the protagonist would continue on his way, tra-la-la.  The author seemed more interested in presenting a travelogue of his post-crisis world than in telling a story within it.  Life's too short to finish reading books like this.

Channel Sk1n, Jeff Noon
New and extremely long-awaited novel from one of my favourite authors.  I love Noon's zingy, poetic prose and his quirky ideas, which made reading this book a really disheartening experience.  Forced myself not to give up on a third book in succession, especially with it being a Jeff Noon and all.  Gone is the poetry, and I saw near enough the same ideas handled better ten years ago in a Doctor Who spin-off novel.  It's basically a sceptical examination of celebrity culture; that's far too basic a premise for a novel by the author of Vurt and Automated Alice.  I don't know what's happened to the mighty Jeff.  All the va-va-voom seems to have gone out of him.

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Future Lovecraft, ed Silvia Moreno-Garcia & Paula R Stiles
Collection of short stories and poems that combine Lovecraftian horror with contemporary and SF sensibilities.  A mixed bag of course, but several very good pieces here.

Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron, Kim Newman
Literary team-up novel with vampires and set in World War I.  Dracula, in exile from what was recently his British Empire following the events of the original Anno Dracula, has hooked up with Kaiser Bill and established a new base of operations on the European mainland; Biggles and chums, the secret agents of the Diogenes Club and sundry others must uncover and defeat Dracula's pet project, a cadre of super-vampires based at Schloss Adler and led by Baron von Richthoven.  These aces need no aircraft - they simply transform into flying monsters that you can hang machine guns on.  A highly entertaining adventure ensues.

Queen of Iron Years, Lyn McConchie & Sharman Horwood
Another novel borrowed and read because of its SJV nominability.  A pre-op transsexual travels back in time to Celtic Britain in order to help the Iceni chieftainess Boudicca defeat the Romans in battle, a change to the timelines that will apparently cause the premature collapse of the Roman Empire and make the modern world a better place for transsexuals in some vaguely suggested way.  It's worse than I'm making it sound.
There are two sets of chapters, one near-future and one in the early 60s AD; I'm assuming that each writer was responsible for one of these sets, and I'm further assuming that McConchie was responsible for the latter set because a) that was the readable set, and she has a good reputation as an author, and b) the Celtic past setting isn't far removed from the kind of rustic fantasy setting in which she has past form.  But even there, it's not good news: the protagonist is an outrageous Mary-Sue, a computer programmer who somehow has learned to speak fluent Britonnic Celtic, a language for which there is no extant source text, as well as a passable Roman Latin; knows enough medicine to become understudy to the Iceni's tribal healer in no time; and is able to give Boudicca the lessons in military strategy that she needs to trounce the Roman governor's army.
The misconceptions and factual errors about Imperial Roman society don't help, although they're a relatively small part of the book.  One item repeated several times is the claim that Roman women were barred from inheriting or owning property, which certainly wasn't true in 60 AD and hadn't been for a few centuries - I can't help wondering if one or both authors had some sort of agenda that required them to dress Rome up in misogynist clothing.  It's difficult to talk about errors in the portrayal of the Iceni and their campaign of destruction and indiscriminate slaughter across Roman Britain, since we only have one source for that - Tacitus' Annals, and naturally he had an agenda - but I'm extremely sceptical of the version given here.  In brief, this is a bad book.
Edit: I'm baffled to announce that it's now been shortlisted for the SJVs in the Best Novel category.  Another of life's little mysteries.

The Man from the Diogenes Club, Kim Newman
Short stories based around the activities of the Diogenes Club, mentioned in a couple of Sherlock Holmes stories and presumed to be a branch of British Intelligence, but here transplanted to the 1970s.  It's a lot like The Avengers (Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg, not Captain America and co).  A mixture of supernatural, comedic and horror stories - highly enjoyable.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Announcement, and books for Nov/Dec

I've started a new blog - what the hell was I thinking?!  It isn't a replacement for this blog, it's a 52-week side project that I thought might be fun, and also of practical use in improving my writing habits.  But anyway, there it is - please go and have a look if you like Doctor Who, or if you like electronic music, or if you like me (flutters eyelashes), or... well, see if you like it.

Updates here will continue, although they might be a little more rough 'n' ready than usual.  Case in point: the book write-ups for the last two months...

November

The Clockwork Angel, Cassandra Clare
Supernatural romance by the author of the Lord of the Rings "Very Secret Diaries".  Well, actually a Victorian era prequel to supernatural romance etc etc.  Not exactly steampunk, although doubtless many would disagree.  Bought for $3 because, well, why not at that price?  Much better than I was expecting, and even has some of the flavour of a period romantic novel.  Fantasy elements are satisfactory and there's no "vampire porn" - at least, not yet, although I can't speak for later volumes in the series.

Whispers Underground, Ben Aaronovitch
Third in series of fantasy police procedurals, following Rivers of London and Moon Over Soho.  Completely excellent, as expected.  Looks like we're about due for an arc-heavy fourth volume now.

Aristoi, Walter Jon Williams
Read mainly because the author was going to be in town for a booze-up, and I wanted to be able to look him in the eye.  Space opera with profound moral elements - the future nobility (Aristoi) are each responsible for the development of worlds under their care as well as the overall welfare of the galaxy; protagonist Aristos discovers that a fellow Aristos is secretly raising worlds in barbaric, primitive conditions.  Does either side have the right?  Fascinating read, not least for the parallel columns that allow for internal and external character dialogues to unfold at the same time.

Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the d'Urbervilles, Kim Newman
Borrowed from a friend.  Brilliant, brilliant parody of Conan Doyle and other contemporary writers.  Colonel Sebastian Moran becomes the narrator for a series of lewder and nastier versions of famous stories including Riders of the Purple Sage, The War of the Worlds, Tess of the d'Urbervilles (obviously) and of course, The Final Problem.


December

Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman, EW Hornung
Read as a follow-up to Moriarty because I had it lying around and felt that this was a good time for it.  Turns out I hate Raffles.  He's a smug, unprincipled shit and a bit of a prat, and no amount of lovestruck fawning by the narrator can redeem him.

Strange Itineraries, Tim Powers
Short stories by an excellent novelist.  Nuff said?

The Deep of the Dark, Stephen Hunt
More steampunky adventure mash-up.  This week: submarines!  I enjoyed it, as usual - better than the previous volume - but can't help wondering when Hunt is going to try something else.

Jack Glass, Adam Roberts
Library book.  Incredibly, after my last couple of experiences with him, a really great book by Adam Roberts.  Just when I was about to give up hope!  This one doesn't even lose a wheel in the final act, but sees it through right to the end.  Title character is a peerless murderer in a totalitarian future Solar System; the reasons for his murders turn out to affect all humanity.  This book's surely a keeper - now I just have to get hold of a copy that I can keep.

These things happen to other people - they don't happen at all, in fact

When you're following an angel, does it mean you have to throw your body off a building?  And so on.  They Might Be Giants, meet Doctor Who.  Many people over the past seven years have described New Who as "emo", and Amy and Rory defeating the Weeping Angels by jumping hand-in-hand off a tower block must surely be the extreme point (zenith? nadir?) of "emo" in DW.  And yet, just get a couple of American loons to play a jolly tune with a guitar and an accordion over it and you're back over the borderline into "whimsical".

There was a bit of a hush in the Toon household after we watched The Angels Take Manhattan (Then They Take Berlin), I don't mind admitting.  Yes, Amy Pond has left the series for the foreseeable future, and I won't give a stuff if she never comes back.  Rory's gone with her, which is more of a shame since he was more of an interesting (or even watchable) character, but still, change is at the heart of DW's success, and the show must move on.  It was quite nicely done, though.

Until you stop to think about it thirty seconds later and realise that, even if 1938 New York is out of bounds for the Doctor, he just has to turn up in 1939 to get the Ponds back.  (Best not tell him though, eh?)  It wouldn't even mean creating another paradox, just cheating a bit - plant a fake gravestone where Rory will conveniently see it in 2012, and you're away.  All the tragedy that's been built up around this departure, and which carries over into the Christmas special, depends on everybody agreeing to overlook some very obvious workarounds.  See also the business with River Song's book - reading ahead in it and feeling obliged to do what it says wouldn't be a problem if the Doctor realised he could do something else and then tell River to type up the false details later.  Timey-wimey is only binding if we all agree that it is.  So there's hope for the series yet.

The Lovely Jo felt that it was a bit unnecessary to have a Weeping Angel pop up at the end just for the purpose of writing the Ponds out, but I dunno.  Given the episode's noir detective tendencies, I think it's in keeping to have one of the villain's hitmen escape and turn up in the epilogue to kill off somebody the hero cares about.  Or in this case, send them back in time to live long and happy lives - eh, noir ain't what it used to be.

All in all, not without its problems, but a pretty good episode and a fitting farewell to the Ponds.  The concept of the Weeping Angels creating a battery farm of looped human lives in an apartment block is a great one, and turning the investigation into a '30s style thriller was a canny choice.  I think I'd rate this a 7 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Dice Irae

The blog title would have been "Pond Life", except that - startlingly - the DW production office already used that joke for a string of promotional scenes leading into the series.  Paging Mr Moffat, message from Fred for a Mr Moffat...
* * * * *

The winning streak couldn't last.  We've opened the series with a straight run of three good episodes, which is surprising and pleasing, but here the cheer runs out and we break our shins on a plain old duffer of an episode.  It's not that The Power of Three is abhorrent, it's just bland and forgettable.  Many a Who fan will tell you that being bland and forgettable is the worst thing DW can do, and while I strongly disagree with that, clearly this episode isn't going to get high marks.

I've seen a lot of critics and commentators say that this episode is really all about the Ponds and their imminent departure, that the issue of their relationship with the Doctor and the conflict between "Doctor life" and "real life" is the main attraction here.  Well, great, that's about three minutes of dialogue accounted for.  I suspect the real reason people have focused on the Pond Question is just that there's bugger all else to work with here.  The idea of an adventure that requires the Doctor to spend a year living the quiet life on Earth is a good one, and sure, it's a natural springboard for a consideration of the place of the Doctor and the Ponds in each others' lives now that the Ponds have a settled home life.  Whereas what we get is a few minutes of that playing second fiddle to the sprawling non-story of the cubes.  The Pond Question needed either to be the story (or be reflected more clearly in the story), or to have a better story supporting it.

I mean, the episode starts off well enough, building up mystery around what the cubes are and where they've come from, then after rather too much dragging around we find out the villain is Steven Berkoff with a nasty skin condition, and he's planning to kill off humanity because he's a bit of a git, and dull dull dull-diddly-dullsville.  It's beyond perfunctory.  Ohhhh, I don't know... sinister character actor in a black cape and some make-up, will that do?  Why's he doing villainous things?  Eh, just is.

Chris Chibnall's taken a very simple approach to both his episodes this series, and that paid off with Dinosaurs on a Spaceship for a variety of reasons: it suited the pulp adventure flavour of the story; the mystery of dinosaurs being on a spaceship, and its explanation, wasn't a significant part of the plot, which was in itself robust enough to carry 45 minutes of TV; the characters' motivations, though simplistic, were sufficiently clear and plausible to support the story.  It fails to pay off with The Power of Three for similar reasons: it doesn't suit a mystery-heavy, character-focused story; the mystery is the central pillar of the plot, and a crappy payoff undermines that; the Shakri's motivation is hackneyed but also sufficiently unclear by the end of the episode as to leave the whole shebang floating in the fog.

There's some other stuff drifting around in here, none of which adds up to very much.  The girl with the blue-glowing face and the two cube-mouthed hospital orderlies seem to have been thrown in just to meet the weirdness quota for the week - I don't recall there being any explanation of them, and they just seem to vanish from the story once they've had their close-up.  The scenes between the Doctor and Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, and their "absent friends" nod to the late Brigadier, could be considered a foreshadowing of the Ponds' departure, but her inclusion in the story also looks a bit too much like a sop to the kind of continuity-obsessed fans who would want the Brigadier's daughter to take over as UNIT's figurehead.  Nice to see Mark Williams making another appearance as Rory's dad, although most of his time seems to be taken up with commenting on the fact that nothing's happening.  And sure enough, it is.

So this might be a 4, might be a 5.  It's tempting to give it a (Power of) 3 out of 10, but it's not that bad.  It's just lacking any kind of flavour or character.  And on that note, we prepare to say goodbye to Amy Pond.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Happiness is a Warm Pun

And so, after a brief delay, to A Town Called Mercy.  Folks, it's going to be another positive review.  Here at last is a Moffat-era episode of DW that tackles a difficult ethical question head on and doesn't completely bugger it up.  It doesn't completely redeem the sins of earlier episodes, mind you, but at least when it puts the Doctor in a room with a vivisectionist, it doesn't have him bump fists with him.  It's a very far cry from the abominable Hungry Earth/Cold Blood.  On reflection, this episode doesn't seem to have been part of a developing critique of the Doctor's morality after all, more of an upward blip.  It's a welcome blip for all that.

The keystone scene for me is the bit where the Doctor avoids an armed stand-off with that young townsman.  Here the Doctor is faced with the reality of people willing to use guns, even good people willing to use guns for arguably good reasons, and he finds another way.  This scene is pretty much exactly what I wanted to see from DW, and a triumphantly Whoish moment at a time when the series seems increasingly (and for me, disappointingly) comfortable with gun use, even among the Doctor's coterie.  The big showdown at the end, pretty shamelessly borrowing from Three Amigos, also shows the Doctor thinking his way out of a fight.  It all adds up to a pleasing rejection of the simple cowboy violence that the setting invites, and that other episodes of New New Who have lapsed into.  See also the scene where Amy makes a complete fool of herself with a handgun, which is nothing new, except that here it's actually played as foolish instead of heroic.

Contrast this with The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, the previous Pond adventure in America, in which the standard response of every character to every problem is to point a gun at it.  Compare it with The Gunfighters, DW's only other excursion to the Wild West, in which the Doctor's response to guns is to refuse them or to engage in hair-raising slapstick buffoonery with them, thus undermining the heroic iconography of the gun with his own frailer but more genuine heroism.  A Town Called Mercy is clearly nearer to The Gunfighters than to Astronaut/Moon (so tempting, so tempting... can I argue for a second consecutive episode implicitly taking Steven Moffat to task?).  When it does show the Doctor threatening someone with a gun, it's an anomalous moment - it's acknowledged as wrong within the story, it isn't one of those unfortunate eye-off-the-ball moments that sometimes happens in New New Who.  We can see that the Doctor's gone past his normal moral boundaries, which in turn helps to define what those boundaries are.

We're invited to think about the Doctor's ethical history as well - is it his anger at Jex's war crimes that has pushed him over the line, or discomfort at his own actions in the Time War?  Obviously the two characters aren't quite alike - Jex is shown to have conducted macabre experiments on others of his kind, surgically converting them into weapons in order to end a war quickly in favour of his own people, while the Doctor is known to have wiped out both sides in his people's war in order to protect the rest of the universe from being destroyed collaterally.  And while the Doctor has spent much of the past seven seasons dealing with his guilt, and apparently still feels guilty, Jex denies regretting his actions, although this seems to be bravado and he eventually shows remorse.  The real similarity between the two is their desire for redemption: do they deserve it?  Is their guilt or their attempted atonement equal, or in some way comparable?  What real justice can there be for either of them, Jex being hunted down by a vigilante, nobody left to hold the Doctor accountable?  There's no easy answer to these questions, and thumbs up to Toby Whithouse for raising them, especially in the traditionally simplistic context of the cowboy film.

And then we have the Gunslinger, who is essentially a great big gun with a personality.  Crucially, being armed wasn't his choice and isn't something he's happy about - the fact that he carries (or rather, is) a gun is a reason to pity him.  And yet, being given a gun, he's chosen to use it to enact vigilante justice against the people who gave it to him.  This clearly isn't a good thing - it's what turns the Gunslinger from victim to villain within the structure of the story - although the alternative is that the war criminal Jex escapes (or rather, conveniently commits suicide).  We're left with the awkward question of just how bad vigilantism is in this context.  The Gunslinger is still a vigilante at the end of the episode, albeit a "good" one because he wears the sheriff's badge - authority, or the semblance of it, legitimises his behaviour.  It's worth remembering too that vigilantism - generally unarmed - is basically what the Doctor does for a living.

I should probably also mention that Amy and Rory are pushed very much into the background and feel somewhat superfluous to the story.  Feh.

So this is a mature and thought-provoking slice of DW, and offers a timely reconsideration of the show's ethics.  The handling of Jex's fate is questionable - all right, the Doctor's honouring the late sheriff by protecting Jex's life, but letting him escape altogether isn't a great solution, and the fact that he resolves the plot by blowing himself up is just too neat for this story.  But still, here comes another 8.5 out of 10.  (Previous episode re-evaluated back to a 7.5.)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Books read in October

Railsea, China Mieville
Borrowed from a friend.  I wasn't quite sure about the blurb, which suggested a land-based fantasy version of Moby Dick (we've already seen one of those, thank you very much), but I needn't have worried.  This is in fact another cracking novel from Mieville.  Influenced by, but not a retread of Melville's famous sedative.  The protagonists live in a world in which soil, not water, stretches out between patches of habitable land, and gigantic burrowing animals frolic in its depths.  Traders drive their various types of train over a network of rails whose origin is a mystery, and whose maintenance is carried out by fearsome mechanical "angels".  The hero is a young apprentice on a whaler-equivalent train whose captain is obsessed with a vast pale-furred mole called Mocker-Jack.  He and his crewmates get caught up in somebody else's quest to find a line that leads out of the railsea and off the edge of the charted world.  Great stuff.

Mortal Engines, Philip Reeve
Spotted in the high street at a bargain price.  First in a series of four young adult books set in a future world of scarce resources.  In the name of Municipal Darwinism, the cities of Europe have been mounted on gigantic wheeled platforms and now go charging about the dried-up continent hunting villages, towns and each other to absorb their population and melt down their precious materials.  A boy is thrown out of London by the head of his guild because he's seen something he shouldn't; he and a girl who wants to assassinate his guild master must trudge across Europe in the hope of catching up with London before it does something terrible.  Variable in tone - is it written for young adults, or children? - but fun.

Shadowfell, Juliet Marillier
Recommended by a friend, on the grounds that it's eligible for next year's SJV awards.  Decidedly average off-the-shelf fantasy product.  Mechanically, the prose is good, in that it's engaging and moves along at a fair clip.  Stylistically, however, highly cliched, and the same could be said of the story itself.  It appears to be the set-up for a hoary old coming-of-age magical faerie quest series - I'm told it's to be a trilogy, although this feels like the opener to a more leisurely series than that, given the size of the to-do list the heroine has been presented with.  The repeated use of cod Scots accents for arche-speech and faerie characters also got right on my tits.  Admittedly I'm not part of the likely target readership (young teenage girls, at a guess), but even so.

The Hydrogen Sonata, Iain M Banks
SFFANZ review book.  That's two Banksies in a row they've stumped up for me.  Thanks, SFFANZ!  Verdict: positive.

Monday, October 22, 2012

KKLAK! to the Future

Edit (Dec 2012): All right, perhaps 7.5 rather than 8.5.  It's not substantial enough for the higher score, but it's solid enough to deserve at least 7.5.
* * * * *

Several other people seem to have beaten me to "Jurassic Ark".  Bastards.  Now I have to resort to a blog post title that requires footnotes.

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship: a cute title in search of a story.  It's surprising that Steven Moffat should have handed this wide-open brief over to the ever-risky Chris Chibnall.  It's even more surprising that he should have done so well with it.  He keeps the story simple and the brush strokes broad, and this suits the slam-bang title, the old-school adventure style, and the need after last year's series to settle back and take a bit of a breather before the forthcoming Pond departure episode.  The characters are also somewhat simplistic, but sufficiently lurid and different from one another to allow for some lively interaction.  This is the right episode at the right time, done the right way.

Not to mention: it's taken DW nearly 50 years to combine dinosaurs and spaceships?!  Well, all right, Invasion of the Dinosaurs has both, but not on screen at the same time.  It's kind of an obvious thing for Who to do, now that Who's actually done it.  Hindsight's great, isn't it?

The idea of the Silurians firing off arks to settle new worlds is a nice one, although it may not retcon as easily as one might hope with the backstory to DW and the Silurians.  And just how long has Solomon been waiting on the ship if it started to return to Earth when he boarded, and is already nearly there?  (A possible answer: were these the Hungry Earth/Cold Blood Silurians a thousand years later?  A possibility which leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that they were not only forced to bugger off for a millennium to spare humanity's blushes, but were pushed off the planet altogether when they re-emerged.  Hmm.)  Some very nice use of models alongside CGI effects - I was particularly surprised and delighted to learn that the comedy robots and the front part of the stegosaurus were physical props.  Speaking of, the comedy robots were a lot of fun.

And so to the vexed question of the Doctor's morality, which is raised once again, dear oh dear.  Solomon is such an outright black-hatted bastard that it's hard not to feel that he deserves it, but there's no doubt that the Doctor is responsible for his death.  He could have pulled Solomon out of there, sent his empty ship off with the missile beacon on it, and dragged him off to trial if he'd wanted to - what we get instead is vigilante justice, a summary execution.  It's awkward.  Still, there's some distance between this and such horrors as the Doctor subliminally programming the human race to commit genocide, the vivisectionist fist-bump, and anything involving Melody Bloody Pond.  It's actually a pretty close match for the resolution to The Dominators, in which Patrick Troughton's Doctor similarly causes some simplistic villains to be blown up.  The show is merely veering a bit too close to James Bond territory, which is uncomfortable but not exactly unfamiliar for DW.

Whether this is something that will be developed and/or addressed head-on this season, or fumbled as in previous seasons, remains to be seen.  I understand the very next story plays even more with the Doctor's morality, which suggests some kind of broader plan.

And hey, it's the only really iffy thing I can spot in this episode.  In gender politics news, Riddell is a bit of a grotesque, but that suits his Quatermainish adventurer persona, and he seems to be put in his place by Nefertiti.  As noted in the previous post, the presence of a strong, capable female character in Nefertiti not only plays well here but also offers an amusing counterpoint to the portrayal elsewhere of Amy Pond.  Of course Amy admires her.

In the final analysis this is a very simple adventure yarn, but embellished with enough interesting characters and quirky moments that it doesn't feel stretched out at 45 minutes.  It feels more like an Old Who four-parter with Part One intact (ooh, look at the dinosaurs - but what are they doing on that spaceship?) and the rest edited down to the bare essentials.  On the whole I'd rate this episode as another 8.5 7.5 out of 10 - it's not punch-the-air stuff (with the possible exception of the Rory's dad packed lunch scene), but it's good, and if the 2012 season can maintain this standard I'll be a happy bunny.

Friday, October 19, 2012

It's a madhouse!

And so to the reviews of the two episodes that we've seen of the newest Who.  The first thing to note about this first pair of episodes is that they're a big improvement on last year.  By cracky, when I look back at the wasteland of last year... well, all right, the second half wasn't that bad once it got past the bloody wretched arc stuff.  But starting the new season off without the wretched arc stuff is a welcome move - I know River Song's back in ep5, but hey, it could even be for the last time.  There's a hint of freshness in the air.  There's a definite spring in the step of these episodes that was lacking in last year's doomy parade.  This is perhaps ironic, given the (small quantity of) doomy foreshadowing of the Ponds' departure, but then their exit is a necessary part of the show's fresh start.  It's a positive thing on, ooh, so many levels.

Asylum of the Daleks is a strong opener, from its set-piece opening effect down.  Steven Moffat does some interesting new things with the Daleks and - take note, foul Evolution of the Daleks - has the decency to make them stick.  The nanobot/drone/reanimated corpse business is a keen updating of the idea of the Robomen from The Dalek Invasion of Earth and the clone troopers from Resurrection, and could comfortably be reused in future Dalek stories.  If we're really lucky we may even see more surreal shots of people superimposed over the Daleks they've become (what would those have been, leftover human converts from Revelation?) - it's just a shame little ballerina Dalek won't be making any repeat appearances since the Doctor blew her up.  Tsk, tsk.

The basic plot makes the required amount of sense once we factor in the revelations about Oswin - presumably dumped back on the planet once the Daleks' initial efforts with her failed, and it's specifically her hacking into the Dalek Internet that presents enough of a threat for the Daleks to want to blow up the whole planet, rather than just her ship crashing through the one-way barrier.  The only big flaw I can see with the story is that the Daleks apparently have the means to infiltrate contemporary Earth with undetectable human-like agents, and they haven't attempted to invade.  Perhaps now that they've forgotten about the Doctor they'll have a go - it could even justify a Dalek season finale next spring.

There's also a secondary plot here involving Amy and Rory's relationship, a subject I had hoped had taken its final beating last year.  Here we learn that Amy can't have the children she believes Rory wants, and has decided that it's better to divorce him without explanation than to discuss it with him and, y'know, maybe settle on such alternatives as adoption, some form of surrogacy, just not having kids, or getting a cat.  The message I'm taking from this is that Amy defines her self-worth in terms of her ability to bear children, which is just tragically Victorian-values-normative.  This aspect of the episode takes on added piquancy when we get to the following episode's gender politics banter between Riddell and Nefertiti, and the clearly villainous Solomon treating women as his property, all of which looks temptingly like an in-series critique of Moffat's handling of female characters.

Early signs of what could become season themes: the Doctor saying "That's new!"; casual mentions of having performed in classical music recordings; lightbulbs.  Chances are these won't prove to be any more significant than the eyeballs and televisions of previous years.  There's also the fallout from the Doctor's faked death, which is a) beefed up into full-blown erasure from Dalekipedia, then b) strangely translated into Solomon not being able to find any information at all on the Doctor in the next episode.

All in all, 8.5 out of 10.  It has flaws, but it's a better season opener than the last couple.  Some trite stuff with Amy and Rory, but enough pleasing weird stuff to distract from it, and some very welcome good humour in the mix.  Top moment: the Dalek, thwarted in its pursuit of Rory, that whines "Exterminaaate!" in a tone that clearly says "Come baaack!"