Retro Post: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

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I really enjoyed The Forever War when I read it in 2010; the version which I read had a fantastic cover which is the collection, Peace and War, which includes the other Haldeman books on the same theme, Forever Peace, a companion novel, and Forever Free, the sequel which I describe (accurately) later in this diary as “batshit fucking loco”. I’ve put together several entries from my diary about the novel, with the dates attached.

24th May 2010

In reading The Forever War I have become much, much more interested in proper sci-fi. The book, thus far, is brilliant, conveying a proper sense of isolation, of distance, and of the difficulty involved in long distance space travel, and especially war. There’s a lack of distinct otherness to the alien life-forms and world – although the cold, empty planet on which the Privates train is certainly well feeling. It’s mostly that the Taurons, as bi-pedal two-armed upright-walking creatures are just a bit too close to human for me. Insofar as interstellar travel is concerned this is certainly the best sci-fi I have ever read.

But I suspect that my interest grows for other reasons, too. A Scanner Darkly is probably the best Philip K. Dick book I’ve read [this remains true], and I have been reading a lot of Interzone too. But I am starting to believe that while fantasy can and perhaps should [be able to] get away with principally being a romp (as Retribution Falls and The Lies of Locke Lamora are) sci-fi needs to be more than that. The Forever War is a commentary on the Vietnam war (and by extension all wars) by a veteran; A Scanner Darkly by a veteran of the war on drugs, showing that the side on which he fought was the wrong one.

26th May 2010

Some initial thoughts upon finishing The Forever War: it is good, very good. One of the best books that I have read so far this year, and certainly the best that isn’t by Ursula Le Guin [which were The Earthsea Cycle, in its entirety by this point I think]. I’m not too certain about its attitude to homosexuality, but given the contexts of a) the time it was written and b) its use in the book [as an alienating factor for the veterans] I think that I can understand it. I’m not certain that it’s meant to be condemnatory, rather than just alienating.

I like the ending, even [obviously, edited for spoilers]. I think that works, as does most of the rest of it, especially the [spoilers deleted]. It was a satisfying conclusion.

The warfare, the technology, the extraterrestrial setting – I liked all of that. The sense of distance, isolation, and loneliness I thought were fantastic. My internal imagery was usually better [in my opinion] than, say, the comic book, and though Alien is probably the closest film adaptation and despite my love of Blade Runner, I’m not certain that even Ridley Scott should bring this to the screen. [As he was rumoured to be doing at the time; this was before Prometheus, so I didn’t complain about this film, despite the opportunity to do so. It’s rubbish!]

My criticism, ironically, is mostly to do with (so far as I can tell) the novella “You Can Never Go Back”, which wasn’t in the original publication of the book because it was too dark and negative. If it is the earthly part of Lieutenant Mandella the it’s mostly because of the treatment of homosexuality, but I wasn’t so keen. It did, however, provide the right sort of sense of isolation that I thought was necessary for the story. [The soldiers go home to a world that has moved beyond them and changed, which is now unrecognisable – they can’t stay, and re-enlist in the army, as I recall.]

Other than that, there were some minor inconsistencies which, frankly, I’m willing to ignore. Generally, I really liked it, and I’m looking forward to reading some more classic sci-fi this year.

Retro Post: Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

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I’ve been meaning for years to use entries from my old diary (23rd May 2010-2nd July 2012) as the inspiration for blog entries. Now that I have some distance between then and now, and as many of my more recent entries are based more firmly on notes from my current diary, I feel more able to do this. The plan is to copy out slightly edited versions of the entries themselves, perhaps with annotations [in square brackets]. In some cases (such as the entry on Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino) I may re-read the books in question and add new comments; in others (such as the entries on The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin) I will have to check that there isn’t already information on this blog which matches them. I guess I will try to make these updates regular, once or twice a week, rather than just whenever I can be bothered with them. It might help the blog keep going, and prevent further four-month gaps in updates.

The entry with which I am going to begin is from 23rd May 2010.

Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding was alright. As good as I really expected it to be, not at the level of the best fantasy like the Earthsea cycle but it was a readable, Firefly-esq jaunt in a fantasy world. The problems which I have with it [are typical:] towards the end, especially when dealing with the character’s feelings, he over-indulges in telling rather than showing. I also wasn’t particularly impressed by his female characters – they were minimal, and exclusively introduced with sex in mind: Frey thinking about how useful it was that Jez was plain, the beauty of the female Century Knight, and the others being primarily Frey’s conquests in one form or another.

The other part is setting. Much of the geography of the world in Retribution Falls, besides some of the NSEW locations, is indistinct. I couldn’t figure out my way around the Ketty Jay, nor even precisely what it looked like. [I think my gist here is that the type of ship the Ketty Jay was – airship? Aeroplane? – was unclear, so there were no clues about how it should look apart from the cover.] Greater descriptions would have been nice, but there was also the chance to imagine it for yourself, which was quite good.

[I think the comparison of this novel to Firefly was over privleging, but I know what I mean. The idea was that there was a group of misfits, on the run, on a ship. You’d like them because they were roguish, although I don’t remember them being funny. I have a lot more to say about this book in later entries concerning the rape of all the female characters; a theme of this diary was how many of the novels I read approached rape, as a vast number of fantasy novels seem to do. Perhaps also worthy of note is that this book has two sequels now, neither of which I have read or really intend to.]

R.U.R: Rossum’s Universal Robots by Karel Čapek

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His sole purpose was nothing more nor less than to prove that God was no longer necessary.

I thoroughly enjoyed this play, which coined the word “robot” for all subsequent SF authors. I don’t usually enjoy reading plays that much, and I have to say that I probably would have enjoyed seeing this more than I enjoyed reading it. Which is not, of course, to say that I did not enjoy reading it. But plays are not there to be read, unless you’re an actor (or director etc.).

The Robots are very different to what robots would become, although the cover of the Gollancz Masterworks version by Arthur Haas seems to have taken its inspiration from the Will Smith adaptation of Čapek-derider Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. Was that sentence too long? Is it too late to add an idle reference to the wonderful title of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that is “I, Robot . . . You, Jane”? Anyway. The Robots themselves are very different, organic rather than mechanical, but the themes of creator and created, of the soul, and of the relationship between class and mechanization were not new, nor would they end at this point. The story is said to have been described by Čapek himself as a modern version of the Jewish Golem legend (although a citation is needed on the wikipedia article), and Philip K. Dick is just one of the many later authors who would ask what ultimately will distinguish “artificial” life from biological.

“I don’t believe that rascal is a Robot at all any longer.”

“Doctor, has Radius a soul?”

“He’s got something nasty.”

The play’s importance is one thing, but what makes it any good? There is an interesting tension between the Robots and the men in charge of the factory; it is demonstrated that the Robots themselves have no concerns about the work they do, about their enslavement, despite the protest groups from those who have not encountered robots. Even as they overthrow their human masters the Robots continue to work – more efficiently, but without purpose – there will be no-one to benefit from their work. But work is what they do. I haven’t seen the film, but this prefigures in some ways what I understand about George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, where the zombies follow their former lives, wandering about the mall with no direction or intent. But I digress. The Robots have no purpose beyond work, but they are still threatening. It has been necessary to rid workers of their desires beyond work. But as soon as they are changed, they are a threat. And why would the Robots keep humans around, as soon as they realized that they did not need them?

You are not as strong as the Robots. You are not as skillful as the Robots. The Robots can do anything. You only give orders. You do nothing but talk.

My assumption is that Čapek was writing from the Left, although in post-Second World War Communist Czechoslovakia his work was said to be too bourgeois. His later work, in the 1930s before his premature death in 1938, was thoroughly anti-Nazi; if R.U.R. is anti-Nazi it is especially prescient as it was first performed in 1920. The presentation of the factory owners is clearly critical, despite Domin’s desire for a (human) utopia without work:

It was not an evil dream to shatter the servitude of labour – the dreadful and humiliating labour that men had to undergo. Work was too hard. Life was too hard. And to overcome that -

His dream can of course be criticised on a number of accounts – freedom from labour is not necessarily freedom from work; many who perform labour would not find it “dreadful” and “humiliating”, but he as a man who (presumably) has never worked in his life assumes that it must be so. He identifies the mistake as being the Universal nature of the Robots – split the Robots up, create National Robots, and they will not rise up. Divide and conquer, as was done with human labour across the glob, unable to organize itself through the communication barriers. But he is cut off in his explanation of his dream (above):

Was not what the two Rossums dreamed of. Old Rossum only thought of his God-less tricks and the young one of his millards. And that’s not what your R.U.R. shareholders dream of either. They dream of dividends, and their dividends are the ruin of mankind.

But the Robots are not beyond criticism. Radius wishes to rule over men – his end is not equality, it is dominance. They will continue to work – nothing but work – until the end. Radius is one of few individual Robots, one of few who fears for his life and has the sickness of a soul; the rest are a mass, identical, as far as having the same face. But they are an angry mass. They have the numbers – when they are armed and unified they become unstoppable. Whether this was intended as an approving Left-wing message or as a dire warning for the bourgeoisie, the message is clear – if those we oppress, the workers, unite against us, they are the many, we are the few – they will win.

The question of mechanization, of workers replaced by efficient “machines”, has always been and remains strong. Were the Luddites whose names have become synonymous with anti-technology wrong to oppose mechanization which increased production but potentially put people out of work? The Robots represent both these workers and their replacements, but these replacements are intelligent, and alive. And that makes them a threat.

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

Nothing ages like the future.

2001, as I’m sure everyone has noticed, is long past. The future imagined by Clarke and Kubrick has not come to pass – there are no bases on the moon, humankind has not gone as far as Mars, let alone Jupiter or Saturn – but things which they can’t have imagined have occurred, such as mobile phones and tablets and female characters in SF novels. When you read slightly older SF, especially slightly older SF which insists on having a date in the title which a fair portion of its original audience will live to see, you have to accept that much of the narrative will seem dated. Can you imagine Siri doing any of the things Hal does? Of course not. Siri is nowhere near that competent. But then again . . .

Were it not for that date in the title, 2001 would not seem like an impossible future today. True, it would require a revival in the space programme which doesn’t seem to be particularly pending (when is the first manned flight to Mars planned?) but that is a minor point. Also, discoveries and knowledge of the solar system has grown exponentially since the publication of 2001 in 1968 and the Moon landings which followed. I expected this book to feel a lot more dated than it did. As it stands, there is very little in it which (to someone uneducated in astronomy and physics) couldn’t feature in a novel today. The book even features an e-reader, albeit only for newspapers, and not wireless; and is somewhat prescient about the response to such devices:

Despite all the electronic read-outs, there were times when good, old-fashioned printed material was the most convenient form of record.

And so, having established that the story is not hopelessly dated, on with its actual contents. 2001: A Space Odyssey claims to be about the human race’s place in the universe. As such, it begins with the origins of the human race as a tribe of ape-men on the verge of becoming sentient, definably human. From the beginning, it suggests, the human race was guided along the path which it takes, with evolutionary bounds encouraged by those who have passed them before us. Having seen one of these mysterious monoliths guide the apes towards humanity, we leap a few million years in time to twelve years ago, when (mild spoiler alert) another one of these monoliths is discovered on the Moon. Archaeology happens, and it is discovered that this object hasn’t seen light in millions of years – but it has just broadcast a signal deep into the solar system.

After this, much of that story is forgotten for the bulk of the book. We are treated to poetic exposition about the solar system as Bowman and Poole travel past Jupiter towards Saturn; the time, beauty, and also boredom involved in this is conveyed throughout the middle section. Eventually, of course, things start to go wrong. The next events are pretty famous, but still – spoilers. And it is far from the end. The adventure continues as the true meaning of the mission becomes clear – even if the true meaning of the novel never really does.

As far as I can tell, having not seen the film, the novel is a little less ambiguous and seemingly insane than the film. That doesn’t mean it is in any way obvious. Humanity is shown to be remote, insignificant – but potentially of enormous importance. The ambiguity of this ending is similar to that which Ridley Scott achieved in Blade Runner (although it is less obvious what is supposed to be ambiguous) and seems to be exactly what he was hoping to achieve in Prometheus, and failed miserably. There is a short essay at the beginning of this edition of 2001 titled “Back to 2001″, written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1989, in which he comments:

He [Kubrick] wanted to make a movie about Man’s place in the universe – a project likely to give a heart-attack to any studio head of the old school, or, for that matter, of the new one. It’s certainly difficult to imagine it being welcomed in Hollywood today.

This may have been true of the late 80s, but it is no longer true. Hollywood produced Prometheus, and showed that it may be willing, it was no longer able. I feel as if I have come across these two narratives the wrong way around, although Prometheus’ apparent lack of knowledge that these topics have been covered before does somewhat suggest that Damon Lindelof and Ridley Scott haven’t seen or read 2001. I don’t wish to elevate 2001 too far by comparing it to something so completely inferior; it is an interesting meditation about how humanity’s exploration of the universe may change its very meaning. But because of the ambiguity, the answers really come from the reader, from their disposition. It is an aid to thought, not a place where the answers will be found.

I look forward to watching the film at some point. Perhaps I will have more to say then.

[EDIT] I forgot to say… it is IMPOSSIBLE to read this book without having this as your earworm for days afterwards:

Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

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On the planet Jeep there are only two options: change or die. A virus centuries ago wiped out all of the planet’s men and altered their women, who survive somehow reproducing despite the lack of males. Anthropologist Marghe Taishan is sent to the planet to find out the secrets of their society, and to test out a new vaccine which will allow Company to exploit the planet for its natural resources. But she soon finds that she is changing, and the women of Jeep are much more than they seem. A profound and moving novel, Ammonite stands in the tradition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man as an evocative study of the role of gender in society, and what it means to be human.

This was not Earth; this was Jeep, a planet of alien species, a place where the human template of dual sexes had been torn to shreds and thrown away.

Or . . . that’s how it was sold to me. At least, that’s how it seems that it has been sold, ever since it’s publication in 1992. But it took me some time to fathom while reading and since finishing the novel why Jeep needed to have had its men eradicated. There are hints: Company cannot come to the planet (and exploit it) because they are men and the will not survive (although the virus kills about 20% of women, too); the virus represents the male in society, it is destructive and kills (this one does not hold up at all through the narrative of the book). What I have ultimately settled on is that Griffith is aiming so show that a society without men could work – it is imperfect, stone age in its technology, but it works. Having found a way to reproduce without men the human race goes on, and it is not that unfamiliar. But further speculation has made me think a little further: perhaps, perhaps, Griffith has taken a world like, say, Middle Earth (or perhaps more likely Gethen) where the default is male (the use of the male pronoun in Left Hand) and only when a character’s sex matters is that particular character female. Except that Griffith’s default is female – there are no men. And for most of the characters, it doesn’t really matter. What can’t a female character do that a male can?

In that last instance, I used the word “sex” carefully. Because I think that is, really, what Ammonite is about – the quote above from page 56 of the recent Gollancz Masterworks edition seems to reinforce that. The virus has wiped out everyone with a Y chromosome; it does not care about gender identification. This, is feel, is really the fault at the heart of Ammonite and The Female Man – having removed one of the sexes, rather than replaced the binary concept of gender as in The Left Hand of Darkness or, uh, reality, the situation becomes about biologically determined characteristics rather than culturally defined concepts.

But then again . . . Ammonite is sold, as I suggested above, on the basis that it has profound things to say about the sexes, and it won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for precisely that. But after about three chapters there is no real discussion of sex or gender. There are possibly three mentions of something male (although I can only remember two of those, off the top of my head). Non of the female colonists think about how they might miss men, whether male family members or the male member, even those dissatisfied with the way that things are going on Jeep. In fact, it is either implied or shown that several of them have engaged in same-sex relationships. To take a non-utopian approach, Griffith could be showing how easy it is to have a science fiction novel where lots of the characters are female (indeed, all but one of the speaking characters). Slightly more troubling for me is that she is showing that society could exist perfectly well without the male. And I actually find myself convinced.*

Beyond this major issue, Ammonite is a serviceable SF book. Occasionally suffers from telling-over-showing; we do not see the action from a varied enough perspective, and Griffith has far too much faith in the conviction of Marghe, the main character, which is not entirely warranted. There are, I feel, a few too many loose plot ends, threads started unnecessarily which disappear or are never resolved. I’m willing to let this slide as it was a first novel, although that seems a little patronising. The natives are not alien, and they work as humans who have learned to live on this planet, in these climates, with this virus, without men. The colonists seem to be coping well with those things too (except I really do feel they could have spared a thought for the last one). It is both enjoyable and food for thought, although not quite as much food as I was hoping.

* Since finishing the book I have listened to the In Our Time podcast on Modernist Utopias, which mentions that most utopias are reductive (something has to be taken away from society to make it perfect); through that I learned of Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, perhaps the first example of an SF story about a land occupied only by women (Amazons notwithstanding, of course); and discovered this page on Lesbian utopias on Wikipedia. Of course, Ammonite never uses the word lesbian (fair enough, none of them are from Lesbos) but there it is on that Wikipedia page.

Covers of Doom Part 2: More library ramblings

Looking closely at this picture may tell you things about my life I don’t necessarily want you to know.

Is there anything more depressing than empty bookshelves? Yes. Many things, like war and the Conservative Party and other bad things. But empty bookshelves seem fairly depressing, and I am not entirely certain why. The books which we are removing from the Taylor Institution library tend to be those which have been entirely replaced by the internet, like bibliographies from other libraries which were out of date before the ink was dry (according to the antiquarian bookseller who is taking a lot of the books which we are getting rid of). And many of the empty shelves are the result of books being moved, not disposed of. So why do I look at an empty bookshelf and want to fill it? I believe this is something which I have come to think of as book fetishism.

The thing is that books like Fahrenheit 451 seem to value the book as an object. This is fair enough – certain books, like The Book of Kells or The Voynich Manuscript are beautiful objects, worthy of veneration. But these books are 1200 and 600 years old respectively. Is the average paperback – like my copy of Fahrenheit 451 – a work of beauty? Some of the covers which I will display later are certainly not beautiful, but they have brought delight by being objects rather than texts. This should not disparage the text. But if we are not to judge a book by its cover, then the eBook should be a wonderful thing which removes the problem of covers, and my girlfriend should stop being so worried about what might be chosen to represent her novel when it is sent to an artist. What book fetishism does is value the object over the function: we like books rather than liking reading.

I suppose my point is that getting rid of books shouldn’t necessarily be regarded as a bad thing simply because books are things of intrinsic value. There is a danger, if we devalue books, that reading loses value as well and people star to read rubbish or, worse, don’t read at all. But a book can lose its value if it is updated, replaced, or rendered unreadable; similarly it becomes of lower value if it is not read and no pleasure or purpose can be gained by reading it. Cheapening books, as much as censoring books, is a problem. But loosing a connection to the physical object should not be considered such a bad thing. A book can still be entertaining, funny, moving, risible, beautiful, lovable on an e-reader. They can still be valued, perhaps more for their content than for their covers.

On the subject of book covers…

This novel won the Hugo Award in 1965. Seriously. And yes, it does include sex with a humanoid cat thing.

Read a review of that book here, on The Guardian website.

 

I’m sure there’s a 100% valid, plot worthy reason why that woman’s clothes got torn in that precise way which isn’t objectifying or horribly sexist at all.

No need to illustrate this one – everyone knows what Gerard Sorme gets up to.

 

This book was actually shortlisted for an award by the Guardian, which suggests that it is probably actually quite good, maybe. But the title and cover don’t do it any favours, do they?

I thought this book sounded good and genuinely wanted to read it!

 

There’s one review of this on amazon.com, which complains that it likens Jesus to the old gods, and the reader felt this lessened Him. I studied Greek and Roman religions, including early Christianity, and I can tell you this: He is exactly the same se the old gods; his dad was one for Christ’s sake.

Just… the boobs. Yeah.

 

Covers of Doom! A post about libraries.

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I ought to warn that this post will be a lot of pictures, and that some of them will contain ladies and some gentlemen not wearing very many clothes at all. Not real ladies and gentlemen, though, arty, book cover ladies and gentlemen. So that should be okay. You have been warned!

Over the past week I have been working in three separate libraries for about four separate reasons: the usual studying and shelving which I do in the Sackler, in addition to which I have been working as a part of the “weeding” team at the Taylor Institute/Modern Foreign Languages library. I have also been helping to catalogue and sort out the library of the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Group, or “OUSFG” as it prefers to be known.* This also may undergo a kind of weeding. Or, as we have been calling it at OUSFG, a “cull”.

OUSFG cataloguing the library!

The difficulty of working in a library is that you discover, to your dismay, the complete and total non-existence of L-Space.** It transpires that, like museums, libraries actually never have enough space in them, being built for collections which are already too big and only ever expand. Therefore periodically the libraries must be “weeded”of books which take up space and are never used, of which there are duplicates, and on which the precious library space cannot be wasted.

Suddenly, your value system has to change. I have recently read Fahrenheit 451, although I haven’t mentioned it on here I don’t think. The value of the individual book there is outstanding, although really the value is placed on reading rather than the physical object. How valuable are the many volumes of bibliography which fill the corridors at the Taylor Institute now that we have an online catalogue? The dust on some of the volumes suggests that they may never have been used at all. Ray Bradbury was said to have hated the internet, calling it a distraction. But for an academic, having that much easy access to certain kinds of information, is refreshing, and frees up considerable amounts of time for other things, like research. Furthermore, scientific journals go out of date within years, if not months. So when libraries like the Taylor and the Sackler have journals going back to the mid-19th century on their open shelves, it does seem to be a little out of date.

With the OUSFG library the value judgements are different, and much more difficult. The part which we have been sorting and cataloguing is the “open stacks”, from which, theoretically, if you knew what was in there, you could request a book and get it fairly easily. The open shelves are where the library meetings take place every week (usually, if they’re available), while the closed stacks are hidden at the back of someone’s garage, and have not been seen in many years (at least as long as I’ve been an OUSFG member… which is slightly less than two years). Given this state, one must wonder whether these books are being valued as objects at all given that they are difficult to access, have no permanent home, and hardly ever get read.

This picture was taken after cataloguing and sorting about half of the open stacks.

There was a tiny cull last year, and when I say “cull” I mean some duplicates were donated to OXFAM. This also resulted in the creation of the open stacks. This year it looks likely to be bigger, if we can decide what we need to get rid of. The books are old, some are in terrible condition, many are works of which I have never heard. Several are classics. It includes an old Penguin classics version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which, being out of copyright, is freely available on Project Gutenberg and will probably go. But when we don’t know anything about some of these books, how can we judge them? By their covers?

Of course, it is usually terrible to judge a book by its cover, unless you’re six and your mother has bribed you or something. But I am sure I used to know a blog which would post terrible fantasy and science fiction covers call “Covers of Doom”, even if I can’t find it on the internet. I present here some of the most striking covers from the sorting of the OUSFG library. WARNING, some of them are terrible.

* As China Miéville is said to have said, we say it “as though it was some kind of word”.

** With reflection, I should have realised this when I worked in an OXFAM bookshop, which was also limited in space. But that is an afterthought.

What could be cooler: not only Samurai, but surfers, and robots! For some reason, also a bird wearing a hat.

What sums up New SF to you? Is it a naked woman floating about a green face plugged into a machine with maybe a rocket there too? If not, WHY not?!

This one just struck a chord because my girlfriend’s been away. I agree, it would be a TERRIBLE DYSTOPIA. I ask you, Ray Bradbury, what would be worse – a future without books or one without kissing?!

I’m sure, in the mid-sixties New Wave glow of LSD and excitement and everything, this would have been a sensible cover. In 2012 naked ghost-like lady with green-yellow boobs: less popular.

You don’t get titles more dramatic than this. It could be the last episode of House (which I haven’t seen, please no spoilers). FINAL DIAGNOSIS. No word on if treatment follows, or what.

Not a mind I would like to be trapped in, that’s for sure.

I don’t want the nearly naked people on the cover to put me off reading “The Golden Penis” sorry, “Sword”, but it doesn’t exactly scream quality literature. Plus I don’t think the gold nipple coverings are quite enough armour for the sort of combat that sword would actually be useful for.

. . . yeah. This exists.

The meat cleaver is what I go for every time there’s a floating, balding middle-aged demon in the foetal position on my chaise longue. Don’t normally bother with the cap, though.

- No judgement is being made about the quality of these books by their covers, of course! They could be brilliant. But… wow.

Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Two preambles: I plan on keeping the first part of this entry spoiler-free, but the second half (where I will give a warning) probably will contain a few references to specific moments. Also, this blog will probably be a kind of “one of two” in that I might post some thoughts about the whole Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy later in the week. That will also probably contain spoilers for the whole thing.

I enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises. But there were some problems with it, too. Unlike The Dark Knight there was no central performance which could blow you away; on the other hand Christian Bale is at his best in the series and Anne Hathaway is great, but somewhat underused. I always love Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but again I felt that he could have been a bit more developed. The best performance is probably that of Tom Hardy, in terms of ability to show his stuff (especially given the limitations on facial expression) and to have a character who is well-developed. Marion Cotillard also does justice to an important character whose role must be mostly confined to the boardroom.

The story has its ups and downs. As perhaps is likely in a film of this length it sags a little around the 1.30-2.00 mark. But it starts well and I would say ends well. It is less episodic than the previous Nolan Batman films, which I actually think is a weakness as at times the story feels stretched a little. Something which is mildly spoilerish that I want to say now is that this is perhaps the most rewarding to readers of comic books – The Dark Knight is similar to The Long Halloween, but I’m not sure that you gain anything in the film by having read it. On the other hand, The Dark Knight Rises may well be more satisfying to those of us who have read The Dark Knight Returns, and who understand where some of the features of the story come from.

That word, satisfying, is important. This has been called the end of the series, and it has to feel as such. In some ways it is the third part of a trilogy – as satisfying as Return of the Jedi I suppose. But others who saw the film with me were not impressed, and so I don’t want to speak openly and say that it will definitely satisfy you. I enjoyed it. But there are a couple of places where I feel we could have had more.

Now I am going to get spoileriffic. Not only for Dark Knight Rises, but also a couple of comic books too. You have been warned!

Let’s start with the thing which I found most disappointing about the film: Batman has sex! We’ve never seen this in a Nolan Batman film before, and personally I felt it was a bit weird. From his obsession with Rachel Dawes in the previous two films to his anguish over his parents and the whole Batman thing, you could almost believe that this Bruce Wayne was a virgin. But I think the thing which most dissatisfied me, and perhaps wrongly, was the realisation I had watching Casino Royale over the weekend: Batman doesn’t do guns, and he doesn’t (in Nolan’s universe) do sex; he’s not James Bond. Although there’s also probably the fact that if he was going to have sex with anyone I’d rather it had been Selina Kyle.

The five month siege of Gotham also seemed really farfetched. Why on Earth would the League of Shadows bother with this five month-long experiment in unevolved anarchy only to blow the city up anyway? Were they hoping that Bruce Wayne would come back and save the day? I suppose it could have been to make sure that he saw the city suffering, but I don’t really buy it.

On the other hand, I absolutely loved the misleading story about Bane being Ra’s al Ghul’s child and the final reveal of Talia. As an occasional comic book reader, sometimes, this should have been something which I would spot, but I didn’t and I was very impressed that I’d been misled on this point. Also, I really liked the Robin reveal too – we’d all been thinking it, but to include it in that way was a nicely cheesy reference to the character which could have taught the writers of Smallville a lesson or two!

I quite liked the end, although I admit that I had been expecting something similar. Adapting a couple of elements of the ending of The Dark Knight Returns (how do you dispose of a nuclear bomb without Superman? what end for the Dark Knight?) but really giving Bruce Wayne the clean slate he needed – and the implied relationship with Selina Kyle which some of us at least had wanted – was a nice touch. Perhaps it was a little too neat, and perhaps a more cynical view might have thought Bruce Wayne dying would have been a better ending, but I liked it this way. After all, an end to the legend of the Dark Knight is new territory, Batman having died (as far as I know) only twice, once faked and once actually trapped in another dimension or something. There were no guidelines to follow, but a lot of fans to please. It felt like an ending. Not the most satisfying, but good nonetheless.

Review: Nelson edited by Rob Davies and Woodrow Phoenix

I want to start by saying that Nelson, a Black Slate Books publication edited by Rob Davies and Woodrow Phoenix, is an interesting idea, but I don’t want to come across as too negative on this point. I enjoyed it quite a lot, although the format has some limits. There isn’t really a plot, but there is an idea. That idea is that, through a series of short comics written and drawn by different UK comics artists, a picture of a life could emerge. Each of the fifty-four contributors contributes a year, from 1968 to 2011, with an additional February 29th every leap year.

While I wouldn’t say the quality fluctuates, often the interest can. Also, as there was a five-page limit for each of the contributors, some of the parts feel too short, and limited in scope, despite the life-long scope of the whole endeavour. There are themes which span her entire life, some of which shift into the background and some which emerge much later on. Characters come and go, and while I recommend reading it quite slowly (to get an idea of the time passing) it is also a good idea to keep checking back or making sure you remember who is who.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the comic is the portrait of the eras through which it spans. Nel grows up in the 70s, goes to college in the 80s, and is a mature(-ish) adult in the early 00s. This part is one of the more interesting for me, because some of the historical events which I can remember have their place in the story. For the earlier sections it is interesting to see how attitudes change, and how the social history of Britain could have affected an individual.

The biggest problem is perhaps the lack of a story. Themes are picked up by some artists, dropped by others, and can disappear completely. Of course, over forty-four years this can only be expected. Events of a person’s childhood both may and may not continue to affect their lives forever afterwards. Friends grow apart, and come back together.

As I began: it is interesting. It is affecting and effective, too. With a little more time I think I will want to explore these artists a little more (those who I don’t already know, as I love Bad machinery). Definitely worth a look!

Do you remember the first time?

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A couple of things have prompted this blog, which is about authors’ first novels. Primarily it is a combination of reading Endless by Matt Bone and the fact that my girlfriend’s first novel is currently being edited for release in January next year. But a second prompt came from the author Sam Sykes, whose work I have never read and whom I do not follow on twitter, but the publisher Gollancz re-tweeted this a few days ago:

[View the story “A message to independent writers” on Storify]

Now, I don’t agree 100% with the sentiments expressed in these tweets. As Sykes himself confesses, he hadn’t found his voice by the time he was published. And there is a reason, for example, that I “publish” this blog rather than keeping a diary or something which would be private, rather than public. Even though only a few people look at it the response of the public, of people I don’t know, can generally be very interesting. Sometimes it can be offensive or rude, but those can hopefully be ignored. But some of the most constructive criticism you can get is from people who will be blunt, because they don’t know you. And in this way, you can improve.

The idea that a first novel should be very good is in some ways an anathema. After all, it is the curse of many bands that, after an exceptional first album, the second just cannot live up to the hype. Arcade Fire suffer from having an excellent and well-loved first album despite their later success and I firmly believe that by most other bands Neon Bible would be regarded as a classic and one of their best; for Arcade Fire it is sidelined, hidden away, simply because it could not live up to Funeral. Fortunately, The Suburbs was magnificent enough that it challenged the first album for greatness. A better position to be in, however, is that of a band like the White Stripes who, as far as I can tell because I wasn’t really paying attention at the time, had two fairly OK albums, and then two magnificent ones a bit later on. As Sykes argues, the first books often don’t have a voice. If you emerge with a voice fully formed, then all you will attract later is complaints when you try to change and develop it.

To apply this to novels, the first author who springs to my mind is, as ever, Ursula Le Guin. Her first novel, developed from short stories, was Rocannon’s World, a fairly good science fiction/fantasy novel which, as she would later comment herself, is not as good as what Gene Wolfe does with similar concepts. The ensuing trilogy, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions is fine, but much of what is done with these books – the ethnographer on a strange planet in Rocannon’s World, the permafrost of Planet of Exile – is picked up again and developed in The Left Hand of Darkness, an undoubtably superior book. At around the same time she began the Earthsea series, and again we see improvement as the trilogy goes along, but personally I feel that the trilogy as a whole shows a lot more competence as a writer because she had grown more, learned by doing, and reached a better point in her skill to do what she wanted as an author. Should Rocannon’s World have remained unpublished? Of course not! Then the series may not have developed, and we would not have Left Hand nor The Dispossessed, and the world would be a more impoverished place.

A counter-argument perhaps emerges when a first book is phenomenally successful, or belongs in a series which becomes phenomenally successful and relies on reading every volume. I’m thinking of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling. I don’t think I’m going to be expressing too controversial an opinion if I suggest that Stone is not the best of the Harry Potter books (it’s Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban) but it has to be good enough to fit with the standard of the rest of the series. And I would say it does, perhaps because in the latter part of the series the books become too long and perhaps were less successfully edited. But here I would suggest the problem is more Arcade Fire, and the series has to be considered as a whole rather than as individual parts. The “second novel”, therefore, is not Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets but The Casual Vacancy. Comments on the internet are already being bitter about the success of the well-loved by all ages Potter and the fact that Rowling can’t write anyway so it will be rubbish blah blah blah; these are people who will never be pleased. But even for those who devoured the Potter books as children, writing something different after such a long time poses difficulties, and it might be a lot easier (if not necessarily better, or more successful) were the first series not to have attracted the attention which I did, and if there were less pressure and fewer assumptions about how the book needs to be.

I think I will have some more thoughts on this topic in the future, when I have read King Rat, China Miéville’s first book, which is unlikely to be as good as The City and the City. As a concluding thought I would perhaps say this: when my literary intentions were greater, and I was reading about the publishing industry, I kept on being told that most authors have an unpublished first novel. Others, for example The Flood by Ian Rankin, are published but sink without a trace only to find a new lease of life when the author finds success elsewhere, such as in the phenomenal Rebus series. The first is not the most important. It is important, as a foot in the publishing door if nothing else. But, really, the follow-up is much more important. Showing that you have longevity, and can keep on going – that’s what you want in an author.

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