Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Title: Lion Time In Timbuctoo
Author: Robert Silverberg
Publisher: Voyager

Lion Time In Timbuctoo is volume 6 in a series of collections of material by science fiction writer Robert Silverberg. Each of the volumes covers a period in Silverberg's 40 some years writing. This collection covers a period between 1989 and 1995, a point where Silverberg was far from his most productive. For me Silverberg is influential, I read dozens of the novels he churned out at his peak while I was in my early 20's. It has been a while since then, and with that it has been awhile since I read very much of Silverberg's work. So for me this is a decent collection of work, which reminds of the sort of range and material he covers. Though, for me, I found the commentary on each story and how it fit into his career just as interesting.

The collection features 14 pieces, which range from shorts to what would more likely be considered novellas. With Red Blaze In The Morning being the only piece I had actually read prior to engaging with this collection. The first piece is the novella Lion Time In Timbuctoo from which the collection takes its title. Lion Time is a follow up to a novel Silverberg did something like 30 years before this story. In there he set up an alternate history, in which Europe had been wiped out by the black plague of 1348. From there the Ottoman Empire had dominated Europe, while African and South American cultures remained strong. Lion Time found itself into print in a number of ways, it was published in magazine form, and as one of 3 novellas set in this environment. As the title suggests, the piece is set in Timbuctoo, and follows a transitional period. Perhaps particularly resonant given the illness and replacement of the Pope recently, the current king "Big Father" has fallen ill and "Little Father" is on stand by. The story follows the tensions of a protracted illness, and the schemes which build up to prevent Little Father taking his rightful place as king.

A Tip On A Turtle, the first of the stories in the collection to have originally been printed in Playboy magazine, follows this. The market that these stories has been written for might sum up why some of these pieces feel a little more understated and tamer than we might expect from classic Silverberg. The plot sees a woman going to a Caribbean island after the break up of her marriage - some time to pull her life back together and relax after the strains of her divorce. While there she meets a strange man, somehow creepy and compelling, and his ability to always bet on the winner of the hotel's nightly turtle races is increasingly unnerving.

In The Clone Zone is another interesting piece like Lion Time, having it at its centre a more exotic location than many Earth based stories perhaps going for. Again this has elements that have a particularly contemporary edge. While cloning is banned in many places around the world at the moment, it is not banned everywhere. This story comes off of the idea that a country somewhere in South America could decide to allow cloning to go ahead. Combined with this is the idea that South America has a history of unstable governments and dictatorships, so that we have a leader who clones himself to maintain his power while cornering the market in the technology. But of course what might seem like a good idea to someone to start with, isn't necessarily going to remain a good idea.

Hunters In The Forest is a mixed piece, one that brings dinosaurs and time travel into play. A man bored of life in the 23rd century has scraped the money together to travel back in time to see dinosaurs, but struggles to build up the enthusiasm he was hoping for. To a degree this is a story about how things change, how we have an ever increasing tendency to make things safe, homogenous, sterile. Although in the process Silverberg also manages to create a quandary for the character, offering him options and forcing him to chose.

A Long Night's Vigil At The Temple is probably the only contribution to the collection that I particularly didn't like. A big part of that is likely to be its context, sold as it is as "the only science fiction homage to Tolkien." The piece was originally printed in a collection of stories celebrating an anniversary of Tolkien's, particularly odd given Silverberg's confessed unfamiliarity with his work. The person compiling the book decided that it didn't matter, and Silverberg wrote Vigil At The Temple based on his vague understanding of Tolkien's themes. The result is a piece which I would tend not to call SF for starters, or particularly bearing resemblance to Tolkien for that matter. A temple has been built based on a religion involving three strange people who weren't human, with inferences of possibly being elves to give that token gesture connection, or aliens for the SF one.

It Comes And Goes is another of the obvious contributions that were originally printed in Playboy. Which in this case led to some changes being requested from Silverberg, would it be possible for a story that is going to be printed in magazine full of adverts for alcohol not to feature an alcoholic? Given that it wasn't a big deal, he agreed to change it to a drug addiction. In the case of the version in this collection, Silverberg has reverted to the original text. Where a recovering alcoholic is struggling to stay dry and get his life back together. So when he comes across a house that comes and goes he initially assumes that he is still experiencing some kind of side effects. However the plot thickens and is increasingly convinced that there is something strange going on. Another of those pieces like Tip On A Turtle that perhaps has more of a Twilight Zone type feel rather than "real" SF.

The Way To Spook City is another novella, a longer piece that Silverberg was able to persuade Playboy to go with. From the notes this was a problematic piece, beset with all sorts of computer problems that threatened to see it to disappear before it was ever finished. The end product has thematic connections with several of the other pieces here, the idea of the familiar turned a little and someone's exploration of that. The aliens have arrived and split America in two, so that the East and West coast remain independent states, but the middle part has become alien territory. This has been the state for 150 years, so people have grown to accept it as much as they can. The story follows one man who holds on to his xenophobia, but is forced to visit the alien capital Spook City when his brother disappears during a rite of passage in alien territory.

Death Us Do Part provides the idea of extended life times, and the effects that can have on people and in particular relationships. Following as it does a woman in her 30's to a man in his 300's, and how she copes with his numerous ex-wifes and kids all of whom are 3 to 10 times older than she is.

The Martian Invasion Journals of Henry James is another of those tribute anthology pieces like the Tolkien one, though in this case the theme was H.G. Wells' War Of The Worlds as seen from the point of view of his contemporaries. Silverberg chose to write the story in the style of Henry James, so it follows the adventures of James and his friend Wells during a period of Martian invasion. I'm not especially aware of James other than as a name that crops up, so I can only assume that Silverberg does a reasonable job in paying tribute to the style. Though for me that style was a little annoying to start with, even if I did eventually get passed that to get on with the story.

Crossing Into Empire is another one of those pieces that contains a number of classic Silverberg themes, as well as having originally been intended to be published in Playboy. However the history of this piece was changed when Silverberg was invited to contribute to a collection being "curated" by the magician David Coperfield. Given that Crossing Into Empire involves the disappearance of a city, Silverberg decided it was particularly suitable for Coperfield. An ancient city appears twice a year in the middle of modern day Chicago, and of course a business has grown up around its appearance. This follows one such appearance, and the dealers who go in to trade modern objects for museum grade artefacts from the past.
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Title: Automoto
Artist: Discom
Label: Deco

Code Colour is a drawn out piece of vibrant electronica, described by the gaps in the blips of dissolving structure. Foc follows with the mutters of child voices, mixing abrasive cuts, to give an abrupt and jangled signal. Formoil is a brief piece, which plays with a plink structure, melody unfolding in a teasing manner. Plexu Glass is a delicate formation, constructed from the tumble and squelching hums of stray electrons.

With a streaming signal blips burst, hum and chatter in Waterpromo, cohering into a kind of ambient. Hums rise and fall in Les Fleurs, sounds interspersed with static washes and low-key lush electronics. Import/Airport comes on edged waves, giving a sharp rise and fall, with periods of silence punctuated by a bit stream. Soft As Snow (But Crack Inside) continues the ideas of Import/Airport, extending a pulse stream. Here there is a certain aggression, sharp blips and soft sighs working through the material.

Palladium/Love Ultrabrite putters with a hesitant hum wash, cut up with buzz interludes, which gives a contrasting punk proximity. Which is to say that it progresses into more discordant material. Napalm Desk builds from microscopic to microscrape, filling audio space with quiet hums and a scraping rattle. Building with mechanic gestures towards electron abrasion. Aeromexicofluo bursts and stutters, before pausing and repeating. Building through cut up percussive rattles.

Code Coleur is strident and vibrant, a piece strong and memorable electronica. Melodic and coherent it thrums with potential realised. This is the albums stand out, anthemic in it’s off-kilter sequences. The CD rounding out with the brief and backwards running brushes of Extra-Format Raw Powerzouk. Discom’s Automoto is a 13 track journey through electronica, going through the ranges of melodic humming warmth to more abrasive, distorted cuts.  Posted by Hello

Title: Bruno
Author: Chris Baldwin

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Title: Little Dee
Author: Chris Baldwin
Comment: Cute Content

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My friend is a vegetarian. He juices. He abstains from caffeine.
His bathroom boasts perfumeless aftershave,
non-abrasive facial scrub; soapless soap. He never smiles.
His lover is a professional cello player. She is elegant, eerie:
a mannequin ballerina in a Powell and Pressburger movie.
It is barely possible to imagine them having sex,
and then only in a geometrical way.


“So what you’ve come to ask me,” I said, “concerns your husband’s late father?”

“No. It’s not about him,” she said. She shook her head slightly a couple of times to emphasize the negative. “It’s about my husband.”

“Is he also a priest?”

“No, he works at Merrill Lynch.”

“The investment firm?”

“That’s right,” she replied, clearly a little irritated. What other Merrill Lynch is there? her tone implied. “He’s a stockbroker.”

I checked the tip of my pencil to see how worn it was, then waited for her to continue.

“My husband is an only son, and he was more interested in stock-trading than Buddhism, so he didn’t succeed his father as head priest of the temple.”

Which all makes perfect sense, don’t you think? her eyes said, but since I didn’t have any opinion one way or the other on Buddhism or stock-trading, I didn’t respond. Instead, I adopted a neutral expression that indicated that I was absorbing every word.


Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Title: The Abyss Stares Back
Artist: S.Q.E.
Label: Influx Communications

Once upon a time there was a band called Smooth Quality Excrement, and it was a band made up of 3 people. They did an album called Bird And Truck Collisions, which was a droning piece of experimental music. Time has passed and Smooth Quality Excrement is now going by the name S.Q.E. and is now the solo project of J. Greco. There are some similarities in style, both feature droning and ambient undertones, but on the whole S.Q.E.’s album The Abyss Stares Back is a different beast.

The first of the tend tracks on The Abyss Stares Back is On Broadway, where the fact that this is a different sound is made clear straight away. A relatively short piece, we are greeted by almost operatic vocals, accompanied by the background sound of something that could be passing traffic or washing waves. The next track provides a better idea of what the album holds, Daughters Of Albion Awake mixing a sense of updated 70’s rock music with a certain folk undertone. It starts with picked bass sounds that take us in by steps. From there we have solid and complimentary drums, which are then fleshed out with the presence of drifting lush strings and a woman’s voice kind of sing-talking. The vocals by Tracey Jeffrey giving it that particularly esoteric/folk feel.

Guitars shimmer, introducing Jorinda X, bass sliding out from beneath. With Jorinda X, Kris Force sings lyrics based on a work by the Brothers Grimm in a high-pitched voice. Bass drones flit through the whole, darkening the mood. In construction terms this feels like it has a lot of space for the listener to slip into. To close your eyes, and let the contrasting depths of bass and fragile string take you. Drum strikes seem to trigger the sustained drones of Epitaph 1, the first of two pieces, both of which feature Ure Thrall on e-bowed guitar - Thrall having been a member of this bands previous incarnation. The sound fabric shifts, with buzz edged washes, taking the spatial sense of Jorinda X further.

Like Daughters Of Albion Awake before it, The Wondrous Boat Ride has a deliberate stepped out introduction. As with Jorinda X, this features the voice of Kris Force, though this time the inspiration is Roald Dahl rather than Grimm. Here the voice works on more layers, deeper and quieter to match the solid bass, only to be interspersed, then layered with a higher repetition of the same lines. Despite all this the piece is surprisingly understated for the effect it has, a darkly edged slow motion fairy tale. Diamond is another instrumental piece, which comes in on a bass edge. Building dark currents and absorbing washes. Diamond plays with dark ambient themes and the feel of drones generated by e-bowed bass.

Epitaph 2 follows on from Epitaph 1, another instrumental, with contributions from Ure Thrall. This part has vibrant liquid sounds, played in transient, hesitant spirals. This is followed by Cat, which I would say is my favourite track on the CD. Chiming notes introduce Cat along with background buzzing. Through this we get a kind of distracted whistling - which gives way to a voice of breathless intensity. Danielle Hlatky is the owner of this compelling voice, which reminds at points of Bjork with the precise intonation and enthusiasm. The voice is accompanied by what sounds like viola and tuba, and the whole piece is perhaps the quirkiest contribution to the album, even while it retains that fairy tale sensation.

After the quirkiest track on the album with Cat, we are given the most upbeat track of the album with 1974. Swirling and jaunty notes play with a rapid beat work Spacey blips fire through the mix to emphasize the feeling, while a periodic melody washes in with a more reflective and contrasting mood. The album’s official end of Ota, a tinkling music box piece that plays the fragile melody of cogs shifting slowly. At times layering in chimes to give a more solid feeling, before teasing out a conclusion. There is a hidden track, which comes at some point after Ota that is an understated contribution.
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Monday, April 25, 2005

Title: Singularity Sky
Editor: Charles Stross
Publisher: Orbit

Trying to explain the career of Charles Stross to date seems to be a tricky thing to do. He has something like 8 novels written, with different ones being published in different places. Singularity Sky is his first novel to be published in the UK, coming out in paper back in the UK at the start of 2005, with the sequel Iron Sunrise just out in hardback.

With Singularity Sky, Stross teases his background detail out across the course of the book, so that it takes a little time before things start to come together. Though this does mean that he isn’t bludgeoning the reader with masses of background before they are even into the narrative. Though, the basic idea is that something called the Eschaton intervened in human history at a key point. They informed the human race that reality was a fragile thing, and that they would take steps to prevent humans from messing with that. Part of which was to split the human race up, scattering them across a number of planets.

The New Republic have established a feudal system across a number of planets. Establishing an emperor and a strict anti-technology stance. This has existed for some time as a brutal regime, crushing any hint of resistance. But that is all upset on one of the planets in the system when something called the Festival arrives. Hyper technologically advanced, and entirely alien to the New Republic the festival are an instant revolution, which the authorities feel required to fight.

Stross tries to do a lot with Singularity Sky, which at times feels cluttered, so that certain threads don’t seem to have the depth and sustenance they should have. From that a couple of characters emerge, particularly Martin Springfield and Rachel Mansour. Both are external characters, from Earth, and working for different forces against the status quo of the New Republic. Topically Mansour is a UN weapons inspector and peace keeper - assigned to intervene against the regime if they get out of hand, and to ensure that no one is using inappropriate weapons of mass destruction. Springfield on the other hand is a specialist engineer who is under suspicion for a spy, but his cover is much deeper than that. These two characters really propel the novel, and without this as a thread of substance it is likely the novel would have floundered.

Stross has been publishing some of the most striking and memorable short form fiction of the last few years. Which creates a certain expectation from his first long form work to be published in his native UK. Undoubtedly Singularity Sky is densely filled with ideas, much of which is interesting and is what we want to see. The novel itself forms as a whole a work of Space Opera, which seems to be a little surprising given the type of material that he has done in the past. The result is that there is more space battles and nature of the universe text than I would necessarily like to be reading. For some writers this works particularly well, but for me, this is now where Stross’s strengths lie.

Singularity Sky has strong parallels with Iain M. Banks Culture novels. The tendency to wax lyrical about the nature of space and planetary systems is there, and is exactly the kind of thing that puts me off those Culture novels. On the other hand, Mansour strongly remind of Banks’s special circumstances characters, which is exactly the kind of thing that I do like about those Culture novels. In terms of the set up of the New Republic we have a setting which recalls the outer worlds of Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn Trilogy - a fiefdom remotely located from Earth and with less technology because of that. There are some political references to the Earth, which perhaps suggest comparison to Ken MacLeod’s work, but those are very token gestures. With a sequel already available in hardback, perhaps it will cover more of the Earth based society in this set up.

Singularity Sky has promise and hopefully Stross will live up to his potential as he gets more practice with this form. But there certainly seem to be some problems with the expansion from short fiction to long, not least a sense of occasional padding and repetition.  Posted by Hello

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Listen: SQE - myspace page with 4 preview tracks

Like most of his countryfolk he flashed steel teeth, and resembled a car's grille when he smiled. He'd treated us to the Brotherhood Of Money restaurant on Gorki Street. In Moscot restaurants the first decor systems noticed, once eyes unbliked beneath overhead flood's glare, were the enormous wallpapered ads. From each of the longrotted leader glowered at his descendants as they chowed. In twelvecolour holograph Big Boy modeled furs, guzzled kvas, smirked at his reflection in freshly waxed Lenin, patted puppoes' heads, spun the wheels of Hungarian sportsters and proffered tubes of holistic nostrums. If his icon was on it, Russians bought it. Stalin sold everything from laser printers to pantyhose.

Extract: Terraplane
by Jack Womack

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Title: Cursed
Cast: Christina Ricci, Shannon Elizabeth, Portia de Rossi, Michael Rosenbaum, Scott Foley, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Joshua Jackson, Mya
Director: Wes Craven

Cursed is the latest film from the Scream team. And it shows. In terms of style and development Cursed just screams Scream. Though with that, one wonders how much of the thinking behind Cursed comes from the success of the Canadian film Ginger Snaps? Being a Scream team production these is of course more of a tongue in cheek approach, certain parts feeling like they might owe reference to Teen Wolf.

At the heart of Cursed are Ellie (Ricci - The Opposite Of Sex, Miranda, Pecker, Buffalo 66) and Jimmy (Eisenberg -The Village, Roger Dodger) - a brother and sister who are living together after the death of their parents. While they are troubled, Ellie at least feels that she might have found Mr. Right with Jake (Jackson - Gossip, Cruel Intentions, Urban Legend). However after a fight with him, she picks up her brother and the pair get into an accident with another car. As they try to pull a woman from her car they are attacked. The woman is torn apart, and the brother and sister are both scratched or bitten. But what was the killer animal? Surely not a werewolf?

This is a big budget werewolf film, so we get a good look at the beast earlier than is often the case with this type of film. Transformation is held back, but with readily available CGI this is a lingering and full on change. The team behind Cursed have a clear track record, something that can be seen by the production values used on this film and the budget that suggests. However, Cursed exhibits the symptoms of what seems to be a consistent trend in the bulk of current American cinema. Which is to say that there is something “safe” about this film. Despite a 15 rating in the UK, Cursed consciously avoids the gore and splatter one might expect from the genre.

There are actually only two real “attack” scenes, which conveniently make use of “celebrity” cameos (Shannon Elizabeth and Mya) before pulling away to avoid offending anyone’s sensibilities. The rest of the scenes tend towards what could be classed as “chase” or “action” than actual “attack” - safer options in most casts. To compliment the toned down approach it has to be said that there are no surprises in Cursed. It may have decent, if clichéd, dialogue and decent performances, but the plot is pretty transparent. What might be intended as twists are in fact pretty obvious developments.
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Title: Darna Mana Hai [Fear Is Forbidden]
Cast: Sameera Reddy, Antara Mali, Sohail Khan, Sanjay Kapoor
Director: Prawal Raman

Darna Mana Hai is an Indian horror film, the title translated as Fear Is Forbidden. The film is somewhat patchy, constructed as it is, essentially, from a series of short films. The core of which perhaps mimics something of the Hollywood genre – a group of teenagers on a road trip to Goa. On the way their min-bus breaks down. Luckily they spot a house in the woods and decide to stay the night there. Settling down they build a fire and start to tell each other horror stories. Over the course of the film each of the characters decides to go for a walk in the woods by themselves – never to return! This is straight forward in itself, but with each of the stories the group tell, the film moves into the story as a short film.

It is with these shorts that the film gets into particularly bizarre territory. From my point of view I’m not sure to what degree the oddities of this film are a cultural thing. Or is this film just as bizarre as it seems? The stories on the whole don’t especially seem to follow a theme, other than they are supposed to be scary. Over the course of the film we get little stories that relate to the characters and their situation. Half the stories involve other people driving when they encounter something scary. It can perhaps be said that each of the stories suggests something about the person telling it, but on the whole the film hits such a baffling level that it is difficult to second-guess its intent.

The films at times feel as though they have been made by a variety of people – given that they play with a range of styles – but director Prawal Raman puts the whole film together. The title sequence has the feel of a Bond film, the core story comes off like a Scream spin-off. over the sequence of stories we have drivers who encounter ghosts, a man who can stop time and a woman who encounters a man selling magic apples. Despite the intent to scare the viewer the collection verges into increasingly absurd territory – perhaps owing more to Twilight Zone type material. In one story a man stops at a hotel for the night, but as a smoker he encounters problems with the health conscious proprietor. Then there is the teacher who canes a girl every day because she never does her homework – then she does her homework! These scenarios are cranked up, while this isn’t your Bollywood song and dance film, it does take the melodrama to new heights. Darna Mana Hai is utterly surreal, even if it is not especially scary.

Friday, April 22, 2005

News: Woken Furies
Author: Richard Morgan
Publisher: BBC Radio Five Live

BBC Radio Five Live’s Simon Mayo show reviews two new books every week, next week’s show will be reviewing Richard Morgan’s new novel Woken Furies. These review shows usually include a panel in the studio talking about the book, as well as some input from the author. So hopefully Morgan will be on live talking about Woken Furies between 3 and 4pm UK time Thursday 28th of April, with the recording available to stream online for a week thereafter.

Title: 41 Stories
Author: James
Comment: Adult Content

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Title: Melaines Choles
Author: Nathan Castle

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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Title: Lovers
Cast: Élodie Bouchez, Sergej Trifunovic
Director: Jean-Marc Barr

Lovers is one of the early Dogme films, the fifth if memory serves. And, no doubt, one of the first following the Danish school of filmmaking to have been made outside Denmark.

The film is one of those narrow focus narratives, which closely follows events in a relationship of a couple to the exclusion of just about everything else. Dragan (Trifunovic) is a curious and perhaps bumbling man. He turns up at a bookshop in Paris one day. Where he meets Jeanne, a girl who works there, and decides to ask him out for a drink. Before long the two are having a relationship, which becomes increasingly intense, even if it is a tumultuous one.

Dragan is an artist. Prone to erratic behaviour. From obsessive working. To going off on wandering tangents. This is part of what makes the relationship an explosive one. But the fact that Dragan is also an illegal immigrant is the really big problem.

With this revelation we get the introduction of a different tension. A paranoia. The characters know fear, looking over their shoulders all the time. waiting for the police to arrive on their door step.

Films with this kind of focus on two people always create a strange effect. There is something disorientating about it. A separation from the rest of the world. Creating a certain void around the characters, which strips them of a level of context, which can make events harder to follow. In this case, that makes for quite a raw film. One which emphasizes the emotions at the core of Lovers - love and fear.

Title: Sahara
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Penélope Cruz, Steve Zahn, Lambert Wilson, Glynn Turman, Delroy Lindo, William H. Macy, Jude Akuwidike
Director: Breck Eisner

Sahara is based on a novel by Clive Cussler, featuring his recurring character Dirk Pitt. Something that suggests that if this film is a success then it will the first in a new franchise.

I have to admit, when I first saw the posters for this film I thought it looked awful. But when I saw the trailers I started to think that it could actually be fun. On seeing it, I can say that it is fun - a big, brash action film. But in some ways it is also more intelligent than I had expected.

In particular the title sequence is a smart piece of work, as it introduces the key characters from the franchise, without having to resort to clumsy filler sequences. Dirk Pitt (McConaughey) and Al Giordino (Zahn) are ex-Navy Seals, who have joined a N.U.M.A. team lead by Admiral Jim Sandecker (Macy), all of which we learn from newspaper cuttings and photographs that are panned over during the title sequence. This sets the characters up nicely as highly trained adventurers, who are particularly qualified for the events make up the film.

The film starts with the idea that during the American Civil war a boat disappeared, through the title sequence we learn that Pitt is particularly interested in this boat, and legends that suggest it ended up in Africa. From there we are introduced to Eva Rojas (Cruz) - a doctor from W.H.O., who makes dangerous enemies as she explores the spread of a new virus. This brings her into contact with Pitt, and before they know it their fates are tied together. Pitt's search for the missing ship goes off the rails as they get into dangerous territory.

One thing that is possibly worthy of note is that the soundtrack is by Clint Mansell. Mansell being an ex-member of Pop Will Eat Itself, as well as having done memorable soundtrack work for Pi and Requiem For A Dream. This is not one of his best soundtracks, but it is curious. Contrasting the interpretations of big action film standards mixed with African themed incidental pieces to go with the mood and location of the film.

McConaughey provides the lead action man hero, with Zahn providing humour as his laconic side-kick, and Cruz the inevitable love interest. Neither the best or worst example of the genre but at least it has some potential.

Title: The Downfall [Der Untergang]
Cast: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Ulrich Matthes, Juliane Köhler, Heino Ferch, Christian Berkel, Matthias Habich, André Hennicke, Ulrich Noethen
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel

Der Untergang is the first major film to cover the Second World War and the life of Hitler to come from Germany. In particular, as the title suggests, this is a film about the downfall of Hitler and of Berlin. The story is told for the most part from the point of view of Traudl Junge – a girl who was 22 at the time, and employed as a secretary to the Fuhrer, despite the fact that she didn’t especially support Hitler’s regime.

Apart from the significance of this being Germany’s first exploration of Hitler, it takes a curious approach to events. The film has a tight focus, concentrating on the last few days of Hitler’s life, and the siege of Berlin. In doing so Berlin almost seems to exist in a vacuum. The events of the war, and the atrocities thereof are not covered, and we never really get a sense of them. Which has an interesting effect on how we regard the various characters. Of course people like Hitler and Goebbels come across as the kind of monsters we might expect, even if they are depicted as human monsters. While others have a greater humanity, displaying compassion, bravery and all.

On the one hand, this perhaps creates a sense of denial, the dark events are not shown, and therefore they did not happen. On the other hand, statements by Hitler and Goebbels and in Junge’s own conclusion turn this around. Instead of denial of events, or placing them solely at the feet of the Nazis, the suggestion is instead given that the people of Germany were fully responsible for events themselves. Since it was the people of Germany that put the Nazis in power. Giving this film a particular resonance, showing as it does as Tony Blair runs for a historic third term in office, having taken Britain into an illegal war, one which remains controversial amongst the British people.

For the most part the film shows very little fighting. Which is not to suggest that this is not an intense and violent film. To some degree, The Downfall has something of an end of the world feel to it. We witness a city that is being heavily bombed. We witness a city that is coming to terms with the idea that its days are numbered. Only at the end do we really start to get a sense of contextualisation – when we finally encounter the advancing Russians who have been bombing Berlin all this time.

As with all depictions of real life stories we have to take events with a certain pinch of salt. Such that we have a version of the downfall of Hitler, which we can interpret to some degree, but we have to remember that it is just one vision. With that, it is interesting to see the way in which Hitler is seen to be such a personality. The film showing the idea that people were so scared of his reactions that they didn’t want to contradict him, even if it meant telling him something important. This sees the different characters fall into a handful of distinct groups – those who are blindly fanatic and will follow Hitler at all costs, those who are reduced to inaction by an unwillingness to talk back, and those who are incredulous as to the way everyone else is behaving in the face of events.

Which partly accounts for the increasing absurdity that can be detected in this film as events unfold. While some are fighting tooth and nail, anything to avoid the humiliation of surrender that Germany experienced at the end of the First World War, others have settled down to a heavy drinking session. For me this leads to a surprising element of black humour lurking within the film. I would even swear there is one scene where the lead character walks through a room of soldiers and it seems that everyone of them is discussing the best way of killing themselves – a room full of people miming nooses, slashed wrists and shots to the head plays somewhat as being over the top.

Der Untergang is a difficult film to pin down. I am not particularly a fan of war films, of the kind of material shown here. Which does make it difficult to compare the kinds of effects that are used for explosive scenes; they are undeniably striking sequences, though perhaps it has all been done before? The film is a long one, over two hours long, but it does seem to flow well, and I was not particularly aware of the length. The film works with a cast of characters, switching between them to show aspects of events, the variety of ways people react, and to keep the film moving along. The film has high production values, and the solid performances, at least from the lead actors, makes this an effective and affecting film.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Title:Maria Full of Grace
Cast: Catalina Sandino Moreno, Yenny Paola Vega, Virgina Ariza, Johanna Andrea Mora, Wilson Guerrero, John Álex Toro, Guilied Lopez, Patricia Rae
Director: Joshua Marston

In modern cinema the nationality of a film has become a fluid thing, so that a film isn’t necessarily quite what it seems. Maria Full Of Grace is one such example, the film follows a group of Columbians, starts in Columbia, and is shot in Spanish. But right at the start we see that this is a film that is made by HBO, one of the more prominent American TV companies in recent years, and the film itself is written and directed by American born Joshua Marston. Regardless the cast is predominantly Columbian, and for most of them this is their first film role.

Maria is a 17-year-old Columbian girl. Despite the fact that she works in a flower factory it is still pretty much sweat shop conditions. There she gets paid minimum wage, money that is pretty much taken off her by her mother, to pay for her sister’s baby. To round things off her boyfriend isn’t up to much, sure he is interested in her for sex, but not much more. So when she realises she is pregnant she is not very happy. Her boyfriend is useless, she doesn’t want to be like her sister, and she quits her job when the morning sickness kicks in, since they won’t give her any support.

Which leaves the question - now what? Of course that is the point where she is approached by a man and offered the job of drug’s mule. Swayed by the possibility of easy money, Maria decides to go for it. On the plus side, she meets Lucy, an experienced mule who provides all the advice she needs to get through, on the negative side, her best friend Blanca wants in on the game. Before she knows it, Maria is on a plane on her way to America, her stomach filled with drug pellets, and Lucy and Blanca are on the same flight. We all just know something is going to go wrong.

Maria Full Of Grace is a decent film, which I enjoyed, and it is getting considerable acclaim. Though part of me feels as though it were a little toned down, as though it were pulling some punches. I guess there is no need for the film to push any limits, it still gets the general ideas across with out feeling the need to go as far as some of the films it could be compared to - like Lilya 4-Ever or Shiwu for instance. We never feel as though Maria is as degraded as Lilya was, and the drug-swallowing scene is certainly more palatable than the parallel one in Shiwu. That same part might even go as far as to suggest the extent that Maria is set up before she becomes a mule might be pushing the character a little - is it really necessary for someone’s life to be bad on every front before they jump at the opportunity to make what is declared to be easy money? Though in saying that, her friend Blanca kind of answers that one, dim-witted and hungry for the money, she doesn’t seem to have nearly the amount of problems Maria does but is still up for it.

Regardless of where the film does or doesn’t go far enough, whether it is an American outing or Columbian, the film is well shot and the cast give good performances.  Posted by Hello

Additional Notes: Here are some relevant links that go with the recent coverage of the annual Mammoth Best SF collections. A selection of website for some of the writers included in those volumes, several of which include extracts and short fiction work. Followed by a selection of the stories from these collections which are readily available online.

Author Sites:

Short Story Links:

Friday, April 15, 2005

Title: The Mammoth Book Of Best New SF 17
Editor: Gardner Dozois
Publisher: Robinson

I believe that The Mammoth Book Of Best New SF 17 is the equivalent of volume 21 in the American edition of this annual collection of short stories. A fact that has been marked by a collection of stories taken from those 21 years being recently published. This 17th UK edition sees a departure in design terms from the last 6 years of collections that I own, the cover has a matt effect print, which makes it more durable than the usual gloss edition. The paper the book is printed on has changed as well, which in my copy at least, has led to a patchy print in some places. However the big bold science fiction cover remains the same, in this case a couple of space ships floating over a planet (probably the Earth).

Every year, for as long as I have been reading these collections, Gardner Dozois goes through the previous years short story work to be published in the science fiction field and put together this collection. In this case the year in question is 2003, with the collection being published in the US in 2004, with the UK edition appearing as usual in about November of 2004. He starts each volume with his summary of the year, a kind of state of the industry essay, discussing the ups and downs of publishers, of cinema releases, and of those who are no longer with us. The book then has about 700 pages of short stories, which is usually enough space for 20-30 contributions - and this is an oversized book with regular sized print, so those 700 pages aren't half dense! The book is tailed off with the honourable mentions, those stories from the year which are good, but didn't make the final short list.

One of the persistent themes of Dozois summary is that the short story market is a dwindling one. The amount of magazines printing new work is far from it's peak, and most authors only use short stories as a means of getting themselves some attention, as the financial reality indicates that novels is where the real money is to be made. With that, volume 17 is probably the first of the 7 collections I have read that hasn't had any of the big names which got me reading these books in the first place. No Greg Egan, Paul McAuley, Bruce Sterling, or the like in this years collection - which does make one stop and think, perhaps this is the year where the short story scene became so bad that the collection is no longer worth reading? Although of course, the collection still has a number of the writers that I have come to know through these pages over the years, and that is part of what makes them worth buying each year - material from the likes of Robert Reed, Charles Stross, Michael Swanwick, Nancy Kress, Kage Baker, Geoff Ryman and Paul Di Fillippo. Despite any fears, this is a solid collection, Dozois as reliable as ever in his selection of material from established names and new ones alike.

With Off On A Starship William Barton presents something of a history of science fiction, though in doing so he takes a novel approach. It is 1966 and Wally is 16 years old, a SF obsessive, he has read thousands of classic SF novels. So, when he boards a flying saucer one night, his first question isn't about what is happening, but rather it is in which science fiction writer's vision has he found himself. A clever and charming story that couples the feel of the period that it is focusing on with a contemporary undercurrent.

John Kessell's It's All True takes us from the Barton's history of SF, to a history of film. In the previous year's collection Kessell's narrator was interested in Tyler Durden, this time he offers a time traveller encountering Orson Welles. Mixing a vision of Welles life with how it could have been. Kage Baker's Welcome To Olympus, Mr. Hearst works in similar territory to Kessell's. Baker follows her immortal cyborg time manipulators, The Company, as usual, putting them in 1930's America dealing with the media mogul William Randolph Hearst. The story is littered with movie stars and period references to go with the central intrigue. To be honest, these kind of stories aren't really of interest to me, particularly because they feel like they are wallowing in a period of American history that has become such a standard.

Charles Stross takes us back to basics with Rogue Farm. None of your flying saucers or time travellers here, self-sufficiency and agriculture is the order of the day here. But nature hacking is all well and good until you have a rogue farm on your hands - a bio-organic collective preparing to blast off for Jupiter. Tending towards the deeply strange, to say the least, for all the more mundane trappings.

Steve Popkes explores some contemporary and hot topics with The Ice, a story which isn't immediately obvious from the title. The Ice has parallels with Popkes's Winters Are Hard, both featuring a reporter breaking a story on someone who is biologically different. In Winters Are Hard we followed the reporter, while in The Ice we follow the person who is at the centre of the story. Phil Berger is just an ordinary teen, thinking about college, and hoping he can get somewhere with a good hockey team. When a bombshell is dropped in his lap, the press breaking a story that claims he is a clone of a famous hockey player. The Ice explores the topic of cloning, and at the same time celebrity and the media, following the ups and downs of each. Over the course of the story The Ice develops into a striking piece with emotional depth, making for an affecting read.

Ej-Es is this year's contribution from Nancy Kress, in which Mia is a medical officer in an organisation that goes from planet to planet. Feeling her age after all this space travel, this is her last trip and as she encounters the broken down survivors of a plague she reflects on her life - has she achieved what she wanted? Is she happy?

John Varley's The Bellman is a brutal little serial killer story. Someone is killing pregnant women, forcing a heavily pregnant woman to take on the role of the bait. But this is in a sprawling moon colony, so everything is that little bit different. A situation that has bad news written all over it, and you just know things are going to get messy.

The Bear's Baby by Judith Moffett deals with the topic of conservation, in this case we follow a man who is working with a recovering bear population. But the new mood for eco-preservation is one of those deals where those who have everything enforce their decisions on those who don't. Of course in this case those in power are aliens and despite the good they are doing for the planet, that doesn't make them entirely popular.

Calling Your Name is the second story to be selected from a collection of material inspired by the songs of Janis Ian - Howard Waldrop's piece following after that by Nancy Kress. This one follows the accidental electrocution of a man, who finds there after that the world he is in is not the world he was in before his accident. Here Nixon was never president, the Beatles never formed, and so on. His family's distress is clear as he struggles to understand, and it isn't long before he is forced to seek psychiatric help.

June 16th At Anna's is like Calling Your Name, in that both touch in passing on the events of September 2001. Kristine Kathryn Rusch's story dealing with the discovery that gets as close to time travel as it appears we will get. The ability to not travel, but open up the past and make recordings of events. From this has come a new art form - that of conversation; the recordings from Anna's restaurant on the 16th of June 2001 have become particular cult favourites. As the man at the centre of the story reflects on his wife's passing, we have a story about memory and melancholy - as he is left with endless editions of that famous conversation, one which summed up a period in time, one which his wife was present at before he met her in December 2001, and they had both changed.

The Green Leopard Plague is an interesting dual narrative by Walter Jon Williams, which follows a post-human future and key events in its creation. Michelle is a mermaid, she used to be an ape, but throughout she has a certain skill at research. Which makes her an obvious choice when an academic is trying to fill in the gaps in the life of a man who seemed to predict the changes that were to come. However what she finds seems to suggest that he didn't predict anything, he was key to what was to come.

The Fluted Girl sees Paolo Bacigalupi present a vision of a future economy based on celebrity. The fluted girl of the title living in a fiefdom of a famous actress, putting her in place to be selected for some heavy engineering work as the latest toy of that actress. Following her realisation of what part she is to play as being the next little money earner for her host.

Dead Worlds comes from a familiar base idea, that of tele-presence and it's use to explore other planets. But Jack Skillingstead follows the emotional impacts on that kind of exploration on the people operating the machines. Especially the kind of emotional detachment that arises from living in a tank for months at a time, only to be dropped back in society at the end of it all.

With a name like King Dragon it probably isn't a surprise that Michael Swanwick's contribution to this collection has a considerable fantasy element. For me, I wouldn't count this as science fiction at all, even if the dragon is formed of iron, run by rocket fuel and piloted by elves. This fits into one of Swanwick's recurring sequences, but in this story follows a young boy and how life in his village is changed by the arrival of a crippled dragon.

Singeltons In Love however is much more what I would call science fiction, with Paul Melko operating in what I might describe as the territory of Greg Egan and Ken MacLeod. A post-human Earth, where the bulk of the human race left in an Exodus group mind, though one individual from this movement was left behind. This story follows a composite personality, six bodies with a shared mind, that is training to become a pilot for a spacecraft, and what happens when they meet that last human.

An AIDS patient thinks he has it bad when he is rushes to hospital with pneumonia in M. Shayne Bell's Anomalous Structure Of My Dreams. But this the latest opportunistic virus to take advantage of his condition is the least of his worries. They don't even know what the guy in the next bed has, or where it came from, but it becomes clear quick enough - it is spreading! This is similar territory to Send Me A Mentagram, a story by Dominic Green that comes later in the collection, and also deals with a mysterious virus. In this case a team out to re-enact an expedition to the South Pole finds itself in trouble, but not with the Russian and American blockade, which it sneaks past without problem. Rather a ghost ship, where the passengers have been struck down by a mysterious virus - but is it one that has been revealed by the retreat of ancient ice fields, one which had similar symptoms in Roman times, or is it something strange from a Martian meteorite that has crashed landed? Or something else entirely? Both these stories have the paranoia associated with an outbreak, and the desperate scrabbling attempts at containment.

Vernor Vinge's The Cookie Monster is an interesting piece, and one which isn't immediately obvious from that curious title. A woman's first day in tech-support goes off plan when she receives an abusive email - one that appears to have come from someone within the company's grounds. She goes off in search of who has sent this email, and how they know stuff about her no one else should know. A mini quest story, where she gathers companions along the way, encountering temporal anomalies, clones, conspiracies... or what?

Joe Steele is the third and final story in this collection to have come from an anthology based on the songs of Janis Ian. This time it is by Harry Turtledove and follows an alternate history where Joe Steele became president of America in the 1930's, and how that changed the course of the Second World War. The Eyes Of America, which follows later in this collection, sees Geoffrey A Landis playing with similar territory - though instead of a Stalinist type regime in 1930's America, he follows the elections of 1904. Where Edison is persuaded to run against a devoutly Christian opponent. Though as Edison makes ground thanks to his wondrous inventions, it isn't long before the other side have recruited Tesla - and a battle of wits and creativity is on! With Marc Twain caught up in the competition as a political commentator.

While Geoff Ryman's story is a curious one, with the themes of homosexuality and the strange ideas get about it being genetic, or an alien plot or something else entirely. Birth Days follows the characters diary entries, each made on his birthday, ten years apart. With nano-tech being the answer to world hunger or the cure to all illness, William Shunn presents a scenario for one of the possible side effects of the technology. In Strong Medicine we are presented with a surgeon, who dedicated his entire life to healing the sick, only to find he is no longer able to do the job he loves, and looking down the barrel of a gun.

Awake In The Night is set in the world of William Hope Hodgson's novel The Night Lands. John C. Wright being only one of a number of writers to contribute to this environment, a trend which has resulted in a dedicated website and collections of those stories. This story in particular I wouldn't call SF, it falls particularly into the realms of epic fantasy, following the descendents of legends, and the prophecy of great events. There are some small elements of SF, this is a post-apocalyptic world of darkness, where space travel has failed, and the moon has fallen. But even with that, the elements of horror outweigh those of SF to prop up those of fantasy, this being a world that is now given over to monsters and evil spirits - with humanity making its last stand in a colossal pyramid.

The Long Way Home is a short and patchy piece by James Van Pelt, which shares some of the melancholy for the future that his A Flock Of Birds did in the previous year's collection. This story covers a period of hundreds of years, jumping forward after a quick snapshot of each period, interspersed with a contrasting view. The Earth is on the brink of nuclear catastrophe, though 14,400 people have been selected to travel into space as the final hope. However, this is experimental technology and things don't go as planned, leaving a ravaged Earth behind. We follow the progress on Earth as the survivors try to piece things back together, speculating on what happened to those who left - each of these sections separated by a brief update of what did happen to the explorers. Despite attempts initially maintain a continuity based on familial ties, the story seems to lose those as it goes on, which causes it to lose a certain flow.

Night Of Time takes place on "The Ship" of a number of Robert Reed's short stories, and the novel Marrow that came from those; as well as his most recent novel, which is a sequel to Marrow. A colossal space ship, filled with mystery and strange environments, finds a Martian born human lurking in an environment that more suits his place of birth. He has collected rare technologies, and the skills to use them, which has given him a certain reputation. So when a scholastic alien finds a gap in it's memory it comes to him for help. A simple story in practical terms - man hooks alien up to machine, sorts memory problem, they talk. But over the course of that the story covers the ideas of aliens, alien environments, the origin of species, the evolution of species, concepts of time, and the possibilities of infinite parallel worlds.

And The Dish Ran Away With The Spoon is this year's contribution from Paul Di Filipo, a veteran of the short story scene. This piece however is particularly up to date, and is reminiscent of some of the material that has been published in recent years by some of the younger/newer writers, like Cory Doctrow or Charles Stross. Here he asks the question, what happens when all our belongings have been chipped and given processing power? Sure it will make life easier in so many ways, and makes a lot of sense. But, that doesn't take into account what happens when all these separate components start communicating with each other, plotting, scheming to steal your girlfriend!

Terry Dowling's Flashmen is a curious piece, which follows a group of Sergio Leone inspired gangs and their confrontations with alien manifestations. For ten years the manifestations have maintained a certain stability, but now one of them has given birth and the old gangs are getting back together and heading deep into alien territory. The manifestations are weird, the way they come down, and take over areas of land recalls Ian McDonald's Chaga work. But the sort of patchy weird effects that each of the manifestations exhibits perhaps has something in common with the strange fractured world in Mick Farren's DNA Cowboy series, something which is backed up by the fact that these gangs having a passing resemblance to those Cowboys. A fun read, which could most likely work just as well expanded to a series of shorts or a novel. Dragonhead by Nick DiChario is another particularly short story, like Strong Medicine earlier, barely more than 2 pages. The Dragonhead of the title is not a fantasy reference, rather it is a virus, one of information overload - where people are permanently connected to an information flow like the internet and reach a stage where they can no longer tell the difference between real life input and the data flow.

The last story in this year's collection is Dear Abbey by Terry Bisson. A story which gets it's name from Edward Abbey, who wrote the novel about environmental activists called The Monkey Wrench Gang. In the story a similar group of activists have come up with a master plan, one which will permanently stop humans from destroying the planet, which they have given the code name Dear Abbey. Unfortunately the plan is currently mathematically impossible - enter Dr. Lee, who has come up with "see-tomorrow" maths. So two doctors set up a system which should swing them into the future, where they can see the appropriate maths and bring it back. However it isn't as easy as that, and instead they find themselves travelling further and further into our future, witnessing the ups and downs of what lies ahead. As a collection, this volume is perhaps one of the clearest examples of how certain ideas enter a genre's psyche - Dear Abbey being the third story in the collection to make reference to September 11th, though like the other two references, it is a passing one and not the focus of the story.

For me the material by Barton, Stross, Popkes, Kress, Varley, Moffett, Williams, Skillingstead, Melko, Vinge, Wright, Reed, di Fillippo and Dowling all stands out. The kind of material that I particularly enjoy, and the kind of material that makes these collections such an essential buy each year.

 Posted by Hello

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Title:Melinda And Melinda
Cast: Rhada Mitchell, Will Ferrell, Chloe Sevigny, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jonny Lee Miller, Amanda Peet
Director: Woody Allen

I have to admit that in my life I have seen one, maybe two, films by Woody Allen. He has a certain reputation, one that doesn’t always particularly do him any favours. With his recent output, he seems to have hit on a cunning plan, he doesn’t cast himself. So, his last film, with Christina Ricci, sounded as though it could be interesting, though I never got round to seeing it. His new film, Melinda And Melinda, with Rhada Mitchell, also sounded interesting, and I finally got round to seeing it.

The basic premise of the film is that there are four people having dinner in a restaurant, one of them writes comedies and another writes tragedies, and the differences between the two have become the focus of conversation. To analyse this situation, one of the other diners has proposed a situation where a woman crashes a dinner party unexpected, and in doing so has a great effect on the lives of those people present. From there, the comedy and tragedy writers take the character of Melinda and do their best to outdo each other as they shoe horn in scenarios that suit their personal strengths.

Melinda (Rhada Mitchell) features in both stories. In tragedy, she has just got out of a mental hospital, having tried to kill herself, after losing her kids to her husband, after having an affair. In comedy, erm, its pretty much the same idea. In tragedy, she crashes the party of people she was friends with from school, and has an impact on their dysfunctional lives. In comedy, she crashes the party of people she has never met before and has an impact on their dysfunctional lives.

To a degree, the point that Allen is trying to make is that comedy and tragedy aren’t necessarily that different. To illustrate that the stories mirror each other to a considerable extent, to the point where you can’t always tell the comedy from the tragedy. Though in saying that, as the film progresses, one isn’t particularly convinced that one is watching either, or that one particularly cares. The dialogue is excessive, it doesn’t feel like the conversations real people would have, but it doesn’t feel excessive enough that you could say this was theatrical art.

Despite a cast of names that includes Rhada Mitchell doing her best to bring both Melindas to life, along side Will Ferrell, Amanda Peet, Chloe Sevigny, Jonny Lee Miller and Chiwetel Ejiofor, the film really doesn’t work. It kind of progresses to some degree as a drama, without really succeeding in getting the comedy or tragedy, something which it tries so hard to achieve, while reminding you that this is all a speculative conversation in a restaurant that in the end the film just feels trite and hollow.

Title:The Rage In Placid Lake
Cast: Ben Lee, Rose Byrne, Miranda Richardson
Director: Tony McNamara

Placid Lake is the son of hippy parents, hence the name. The sort of parents who would challenge society’s preconceptions about sexuality by putting their son in a nice dress and sending him to school like that. Is it any wonder, from that basis, that Placid has spent every day of his school life being beaten up?

However Placid has grown up strong, if a little strange. The sort that is determined to stir things up, regardless of the consequences. Which is why he makes a revelatory film in his final year of school, one that shows everyone for what they really are. Great! Except that results in him being hospitalised with every bone in his body broken.

While he is recovering he realises what his life has been missing – discipline – if he got his life into a sensible daily regime then he would get on a lot better. So, much to his parent’s and best friend’s horror, he becomes an insurance sales man.

Ben Lee, the Australian indie rock star, plays the lead role of Placid Lake, a smart and knowing character. Bringing to the part a certain something, which is effective in bringing the smart mouthed and over the top character to life. His best friend is played by the well known Australian actress Rose Byrne, who has been in a number of Australian films like The Goddess of 1967, American films like Wicker Park, and even British television serials like the recent Casanova. While Placid’s mother is a dippy, self-involved hippy played by acclaimed British actress Miranda Richardson.

The film is written and directed by first time director Tony McNamara, who cut his teeth working on Australian TV drama The Secret Life Of Us – as did Cate Shortland, who was responsible for the film Somersault, which was another recent film from Australia to be seen in UK cinemas.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Title: The Mammoth Book Of Best New SF 16
Editor: Gardner Dozois
Publisher: Robinson

This is the sixth volume of the annual collection of the best science fiction stories as judged by editor Gardner Dozois. Having started with volume 11 all those years ago, this is now volume 16. As I said when I recently covered volume 15, I got a little behind with reading these collections and am now catching up. Volume 16 covers the year 2002, though as usual it would have been towards the end of 2003 before this UK edition was published – being something like the equivalent of volume 20 of the US edition. This collection features stories by the likes of Robert Reed, Ian McDonald, Bruce Sterling, Paul McAuley, Greg Egan and Charles Stross, all of whom I am a fan of. Other luminaries include Ian R. MacLeod, Gregory Benford, Nancy Kress, Kage Baker, Michael Swanwick and Alistair Reynolds, whom I am most aware of having read through these collections. Other strong stories are contributed here from Chris Beckett, Eleanor Arnanson, Geoff Ryman, and John Kessell.

This years contribution from Ian R. MacLeod is the novella Breathmoss, which follows the story of a girl from childhood to adulthood as she is raised on a matriarchal planet, and starts to learn about the way things are run, and has an important encounter with one of those few individuals who can guide ships through deep space.

The Most Famous Little Girl In The World is another clever story by Nancy Kress, whose Computer Virus was particularly memorable from the previous volume. The story of two girls and the event which separated them, changing their lives for ever. One went on board the UFO, and became a media celebrity. Over the course of 50 years we watch how the world changes, and what happens when the aliens come back.

Apparently Paul McAuley has a series of stories, which comes under the header “the quiet war”, which includes the novella “making history” that was published as a split chapbook with a novella by Stephen Baxter. In The Passenger we meet Maris, who before the war spent 15 years building ships, after she works in salvage. So it was only a matter of time before she was taking apart a ship she put together – an omen, which spooks the rest of her superstitious crew. The fact that the ships crew was dead and the passenger is unaccounted for doesn’t help.

The Political Officer by Charles Coleman Finlay plays with a certain parallel to cold war submarine drama. A ship from one set of planets sets up to travel through a new wormhole to spy on a competing set. Filled with paranoia and intrigue, as the ships political officer tries to out guess the enemy and work out if there are enemy spies on board. Who to trust and what will go wrong?

Lambing Season is a short story by Molly Gloss, in which a woman spends time each year shepherding the flock but finds her outlook changed when she sees something strange one summer. A downbeat contribution, a strange lights at night kind of story, mixed with a woman in a man’s world – shepherding/sheep shearing kind of thing.

Coelcanths sees Robert Reed in weird territory – multi-layered and streamed version of a future reality, some parallels with his story Raven Dream, which was in the previous years collection. Man on a stage, a girl the size of a speck of dust, people living in the wild and city teens, all with different opinions on what is reality, and how those other characters fit or overlap with that idea of reality.

Presence, the title of Maureen F McHugh’s story, provides one meaning that is backed up a little, the woman in the story working by tele-presence. But it then turns it around, so that it is about the woman’s husband who has Alzheimer’s, and what new techniques might give him back his life.

In the previous volume we were introduced to Manfred Mancx in Charles Stross’s story Lobsters. With Halo, the main character is Amber Mancx, his daughter who has run away to space, fleeing her domineering mother. A journey to Jupiter and the representatives of Islam in space.

We have another story with an Islamic connection, as Bruce Sterling delivers a short piece called In Paradise. Following the encounter between an American man and the daughter of an Iranian diplomat – a diplomatic incident and a romance carried out through translation devices.

The Old Cosmonaut And The Construction Worker Dream Of Mars sees Ian McDonald enter parallel worlds and disparate visions of Mars. Where the titular characters meet one foggy morning. Combining the feel of McDonald’s Desolation Road Mars with his River Of Gods construction worker.

Stories For Men is a particularly interesting contribution by John Kessell, especially with its reinterpretation of a contemporary fictional character. A story about a “post-phallic” colony on the dark side of the moon, a matriarch where women have the power and the vote, and men are “pets”. In the midst of which rises dissent, a “stand up” comedian calling himself “Tyler Durden” calls for male emancipation.

In the previous years collection Chris Beckett presented Marcher, a story about an immigration officer, working a ghetto housing estate, trying to keep the poor from sliding across to a parallel reality. In To Become A Warrior, he plunges into the depths of the housing estates and the rise of the advocates of the world tree, and how if you can worship the appropriate gods you can shift from this branch of reality to another one where you can live free of the ghetto. Particularly nice taken with Marcher, as there is a marked contrast in the language it is written in to reflect the change in the characters involved.

V.A.O. by Geoff Ryman features a timely theme, given the increasing problems old people are having, with a number of prominent pension collapses in recent years. Following old age pensioners that express “age rage” against a system that has abandoned them to die in old folks homes – hacking the very systems that they wrote.

Winters Are Hard sees Steven Popkes following the life of a man who is engineered to live wild with wolves, and how things change when the press turn him into the celebrity du jour. While Richard Waldrop extends the periodic table through mining of suns and black holes in At The Money. The story’s narrator lands a mystery ticket from a ship crash, but what’s the best deal on the current market, taking into account half life speculation and object-orientated socialism. An unusual and interesting approach to SF.

In Agent provocateur Alexander Irvine presents a man with a choice, as he into a place between time and space. There he is presented with a question – does he want to witness a home run by his favourite baseball player, or does he want that player to become a spy during the Second World War and meet a key German scientist – the man has to decide, one or the other.

Greg Egan’s Singleton follows the life of a man concerned about infinite world theories and the computer he invents and installs into a “human” AI, to deal with this issue, creating the singleton option. Typical big idea driven story by Egan, with a dose of drama that seems more over the top than he usually goes for.

Michael Swanwick’s Slow Life is a combination of 2 prime SF themes, explorers encountering danger on another planet as a twist to the earth bound disaster, coupled with the possibility of an alien life or intelligence system being found in that alternate environment. In this case, three astronauts explore Titan, only to learn that an inert system is no longer inert if you are there and supplying energy.

A Flock Of Birds by James Van Pelt presents an America that is under quarantine. A plague has swept the country, the few remaining people struggle to survive. One of those people tries to keep a friend alive. The rest of the time he spends bird watching, can he find some small hope from this hobby?

A woman becomes interested in fossils in a small town in The Potter Of Bones by Eleanor Arnanson. But no one wants to know and she is forced to get a real job. Becoming a potter is the closest trade she can get to dealing with stone and earth, and over the years as a potter she forms a theory of evolution based on the fossils she finds. This is a story from an alien planet, with furry matriarchal humanoids and all.

In Jon Meaney’s The Whisper Of Disks he explores the life of a 113-year-old woman, tracing back her life as a child genius, and how she is actually descended from Ada Byron. I quite liked the character that the story was following, though I found the flashbacks to the past off-putting and not especially necessary.

The Hotel At Harlan’s Landing is one of Kage Baker’s Company stories, though the territory seems to have changed a little since I read any of those last. Set in depression era America, one dark night in a run down town, someone comes looking for locals with a secret. Walter Jon Williams’s The Millennium Party follows a couple’s celebration of their 1000th anniversary together. Taking in a generated environment, exchangeable brains and clones sent into space in barely two pages.

The planet Turquoise in Alistair Reynolds’s Turquoise Days is a water world with an isolationist policy. Which is upset when the first outside ship in a 100 years arrives. The story follows two sisters who are interested in the alien system manifested in the ocean and how that ties into why the folk have come to visit the planet Turquoise. The story is mix of sibling rivalry, political intrigue and alien encounter.

 Posted by Hello

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Title: Rogue Farm
Author: Charles Stross
Broadcaster: ITV

Strangely a few days after having read Charles Stross’s short story Rogue Farm in the seventeenth annual collection of the year’s Best Science Fiction Short Stories, I was flicking about and caught the end of a trail for a programme called Rogue Farm. Checking up Scottish TV are showing a half hour animation based on the short story by Charles Stross, which follows a farmer’s problems when a rogue farm moves into the area. A rogue farm being a bio collective that sets down roots before blasting off for Jupiter. I’m sure it promises to be interesting.

The programme is being shown as part of the New Found Land series, and is broadcasting at 11pm Thursday 7th of April. Check regional listings for variations, as not everywhere seems to be showing it. There is also a dedicated website http://www.rogue-farm.com, which includes a trailer for the short, and looks to have information about a DVD release. A quick search also suggests that there are limited cinema showings as well as inclusion in film festivals.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Title:Chiller Cabinet
Broadcaster: Classic FM
Time slot: Saturdays and Sundays -2am to 4am

If you are anything like me, then you are familiar with 2am. A couple of weeks ago i was sitting between the hours of 2am and 4am, scrolling through radio stations trying to find something to listen to. Which is when i first stumbled across the Chiller Cabinet, on Classic FM of all places. The Chiller Cabinet, as the name suggests is a chill out radio show, broadcast every Saturday and Sunday between the hours of 2 and 4am.

Like some "chill out" shows it plays some entirely bland and no dimensional chill out music, that you will probably barely even be aware of while listening. But the show on the whole seems to play an interesting mix. What could be described as "contemporary" classical music for that Classic FM audience, mixed in with some easy going electronica music and some of the more outstanding and memorable film sound track work of recent times.

So that the setlists tend to include stuff like Biosphere, Bjork, Sigur Ros, Mogwai, ISAN, Boards Of Canada, and Prefuse 73. Mixed with material from soundtracks like Code 46, Harry Potter, A Very Long Engagement, Crouching Tiger, Dead Man's Shoes, and Somersault.

The following is the playlist from tomorrow morning, which looks to be a particularly strong example of the kind of ball park the Chiller Cabinet is playing in:

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