Archive for July, 2015

By Harry Harrison

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Last year I inherited the first seven Stainless Steel Rat books, so even though I have read a few over the years, I thought I’d take the chance to read through them all in order, starting with the first appearance of the master criminal turned secret agent, Slippery Jim diGriz. Technically the book came out in 1961, but the initial chapters were apparently published in 1957 as a novella.

diGriz is a human living thousands of years in the future. In a universe where anyone with criminal tendencies tends to be identified at birth and reeducated he has somehow managed to slip through the net, crime does still exist in the future; there are just far fewer criminals.

diGriz is as adept at con artistry as he is bank robbery, in fact pretty much the only crime he won’t commit is murder. After pulling an audacious crime on one planet however, he is captured. He expects psycho surgery and behavior modification, but instead he is recruited by an organization called the Special Corps, a crime fighting body made up of ex criminals. Soon he’s on his way to stop a villain every bit as devious as him, and a damn sight more ruthless, a villain with their own battleship…

With its pulpy prose and slender page count The Stainless Steel Rat is very much a product of its time, but I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing. Nowadays the book would probably be required to be twice as long, and people would likely expect more depth to the characters and the world building, but the nowadays version might not be nearly as much fun.

As a character diGriz is refreshingly free of angst, he’s a free spirit in a universe that’s more than a little humdrum, and he sees his escapades as brightening up the days of the ordinary man and woman on the street. Harrison doesn’t waste time navel gazing, which gives the novel a frantic pace as diGriz leaps from one crisis to another. Sure sometimes it would be nice to know a little bit more about his backstory, and yes at times every planet seems awfully similar to the last (which may be the point) but it’s the nature of pulp novels to scrimp on the detail sometimes.

With its gun battles and smoke bombs, cunning disguises and unexplained Faster than Light interstellar travel this isn’t remotely hard science fiction but given the era it harkened from that’s another thing to be grateful for. The Stainless Steel Rat is a fun little romp and I enjoyed its space-operatic shenanigans, witty dialogue and a central character it’s hard not to like.

Lightweight fluff it may be, but it’s really good lightweight fluff! Now if you could just direct me to the first bank of Nizblizzett please, me and my .75 caliber recoilless want to make a withdrawal.…

By Claire North

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Born shortly after World War 1 to an unmarried mother who dies the day he is born, Harry August is taken in by a couple who work on the same country estate where his mother had worked as a servant, and where his biological father is lord of the manor. Harry lives an uneventful life, and dies an old man.

At which point he is born again into the same life. This time, upon becoming a toddler, he begins to remember his first life. The shock is too much for his fragile mind to accept, and he winds up in a lunatic asylum.

When he is born once more into his third life he resolves to live his life differently, and to search the world to try and better understand why he keeps being reborn into the same life. In the course of his travels he becomes a member of the Cronus Club, a society that exists throughout the ages, made up of people like Harry, the Kalachakra, people who live, die and are then reborn into the same body.

As Harry becomes accustomed to his new found ability he lives each life slightly differently, becoming a Doctor in one, a scientist in another. Eventually, on his deathbed at the end of his 11th life, he is visited by a small child who tells him that she brings a message from the future Cronus Club, passed down from child to old person, child to old person…in the future things are changing, the world keeps ending and the apocalypse keeps happening sooner and sooner.

In trying to determine what force is destroying the future, Harry will meet a man who is at once his greatest friend, and his greatest enemy.

There are some books that are so good they’re actually a bit depressing for a writer to read, because you sit there thinking “I don’t think I could ever do something this impressive.” The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is that kind of book. 🙂

Claire North is the pen name of Catherine Webb, who apparently had her first novel published when she was just 15. This fact linked with the exemplary prose from someone who still hasn’t hit thirty leads me to suspect that she might be a Kalachakra herself.

Effectively this is a time travel novel, albeit a highly original one. There’s no time machine at play here, and we are as in the dark as Harry as to why he, and others, keep reliving the same life over and over. In other hands this might have made for a repetitious story, but North never lets the story fall into that trap. Harry might live through the same decades, but each time is very different.

For a story like this the devil is in the detail, and North seems to have planned this meticulously, because everything slots into place perfectly and it’s hard to identify any point where she slips up. The narrative is non-linear, with the narrator on occasion suddenly skipping back to regale us with an anecdote from his third life, or his fifth, or his tenth…On the whole this actually works very well, Harry is an engaging narrator, and the characters he encounters (life after life in some instances) all feel like fully realised people, and there is a certain sadness to the fact that when he reboots those people he encounters who are not Kalachakra won’t remember him. His fellow immortals (after a fashion) are an interesting bunch, some noble, some selfish, some just disinterested, and there is an interesting thread about determinism here, do our actions ever make a difference, even when we can do them over and over again, even when we can go left instead of right, and there’s a melancholy ennui to some of Harry’s brethren.

If the book has a flaw it is simply that on some occasions it is hard to keep track of which life Harry’s in at that moment, but these instances are rare, and probably unavoidable given the temporal spider web that North has crafted, it’s frankly amazing there aren’t more issues.

Inventive, original, thoughtful. I really enjoyed spending time with Harry August, and I heartily recommend seeking out his acquaintance.

Terminator Genisys

Posted: July 9, 2015 in Film reviews
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Directed by Alan Taylor. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney.

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In 2029 the human resistance have finally managed to defeat Skynet and its Terminators, but as John Connor (Jason Clarke) always knew it would, Skynet hasn’t admitted defeat with good grace, and has sent a Terminator back to 1984 to kill John’s mother, Sarah before he can be conceived.

Kyle Reece (Courtney) volunteers to go back and stop the Terminator, again as John Connor always knew he would, what with him having a somewhat pivotal role in John’s conception, and the scene is set for a showdown on the streets of LA in 1984…

Except, when both the Terminator and Kyle arrive, things go down a little differently. The T800 demands clothes from a fake Bill Paxton, only before he can clothe himself another, older, T800 shows up. Kyle on the other hand finds himself fighting a very different enemy to the one he was expecting, until he’s rescued by Sarah Connor, who isn’t the timid waitress he imagined. Instead she’s a trained warrior who knows his name and all about Terminators, because when she was nine her parents were killed, and she was only saved by a T800 (Arnie obviously). Since then the Terminator has protected her, and now she calls him Pops.

With time in flux, Sarah, Kyle and Pops have to travel into the future to stop Skynet, only even the future has shifted, and rather than Skynet in 1997, the trio will have to confront something called Genisys in 2017…
To say I went in to this with low expectations is not an unfair assessment. Realistically Genisys had two jobs, just two. It had to be better than Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (which isn’t a terrible film, it’s just incredibly average) and it had to be better than Terminator Salvation (which is a terrible film. Seriously even the word terrible doesn’t do justice to how awful it is). So yeah, Genisys had two jobs just two…

Missions accomplished thank goodness!

This is definitely the year for nostalgia, with new films for Jurassic Park, Mad Max, Star Wars…not to mention the continuing franchises of Bond, Mission Impossible etc. etc., and whoever started the bandwagon, someone decided the Terminator needed to get on that bandwagon too. But how to refresh a franchise that hasn’t had a good film since 1991? Well if you’re dealing with time travel the solution is a temporally soft reboot, JJ Abrams’ style! This isn’t unusual for the franchise, Terminator 2 set the template for the future not being set, and Terminator 3 played with the idea of Judgement Day still happening, just later, and the cruelly cancelled Sarah Connor Chronicles TV show played with the idea of alternate timelines, and of characters travelling forward in time.

Genisys plays with our expectations, and it’s fair to say that if you’d never seen a Terminator film before an awful lot of homages will go right over your head. For fans of the series there’s fun to be had in spotting scenes that start out as near like for like copies, before morphing—T1000 like— into something very different. It’s amusing to see 1984’s Sarah Connor have the upper hand over Kyle Reece, and to see knowledge that she shouldn’t have used to take down a foe who shouldn’t have shown up in LA until 1995.

Once the mismatched trio scoot forwards to 2017 the film relies less on homages to the past and tries to cement its own legacy with varying degrees of success. There’s an interesting twist, or rather there would have been if they hadn’t stuck it in the trailer (even the director is pissed off). There’s plenty of action, though a lot of it is kind of generic. And then there’s Genisys itself. On the one hand the notion of updating Skynet to reflect our modern, interconnected world is a great idea, but on the other it feels like they missed the boat by a few years, as what Genisys offers doesn’t seem to justify its must-have status.

The casting is a little off kilter. Emilia Clarke is on the surface a very good fit for Sarah Connor, she looks like a young Linda Hamilton circa 1984, and is even the same age, and for the most part she convinces as this new iteration who’s somewhere between the Terminator and T2 ones, tougher than 1984 Sarah, but not as damaged as the 1995 version. The only criticism is that at times she looks tiny (according to the internet she’s a good ten centimetres shorter than Hamilton) especially next to big men, and obviously Arnie and Jai Courtney are on the big side.

Fair dos, Courtney was better than I expected him to be, and his Kyle Reece is a vast improvement on his John McLane Jr. in the feeble Die Hard 5. He’s nowhere near as wooden, and makes his Kykle a likeable sort. The trouble is he isn’t remotely Kyle Reece. Michael Biehn looked like he’d been fighting machines amidst the rubble of a destroyed world. He was sinewy and battered, and looked like he could use a decent meal and a shower. By contrast Courtney looks like he popped to the gym, grabbed a latte then headed for the final battle with Skynet. It’s also fair to say that he lacks chemistry with Emilia Clarke as well, in fact he probably works better with Arnie who acts like an overprotective father who doesn’t think he’s good enough for his daughter.

Which brings us onto the hulking Austrian. I’ve been an Arnie fan as long as I can remember, which doesn’t mean I’ve always liked his films, he has made some that are better than others, and some I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch again but, like Pops says, he’s old but not obsolete, at least not from where I’m sitting.

He is a lot older though, and his Terminator reflects this. He isn’t the cold emotionless killing machine from the original film, but he isn’t that cool, if dorky, father/uncle substitute from T2, it’s probably fairer to describe this Terminator as a grumpy, if dorky grandfather, complete with metallic arthritis to slam the point home. Despite his age Arnie handles his action scenes well, and though the film lacks a real ‘Hasta La Vista’ moment it’s a good performance, showing there’s plenty of life in the old bodybuilder yet.

Rounding out the cast are Jason Clarke, who makes for a convincing John Connor, and JK Simmonds and Matt Smith, sadly neither of whom get nearly enough screen time, although I think it’s a safe bet that if there are sequels, Smith at least will show up.

I liked Genisys probably more than I should have, and I realise a fair bit of that is down to nostalgia, but so what? It is nice to hear that Terminator theme again, it’s nice to see Arnie back in one of the roles that made him, and it’s nice to see that the Mother of Dragons is equally adept with a submachinegun. The franchise has been neutered somewhat, what began as a pure 18 certificate has turned into 12A summer blockbuster fare, but again can’t we blame Cameron for that to some extent? Sure T2 was a 15, but it was still a radical change from the franchise’s exploitation roots.

The script isn’t brilliant, the action is never quite awe-inspiring enough, and some of the casting is a little off, but it’s funny, well-paced, and doesn’t outstay its welcome, and though this might be damning it with faint praise, it’s clearly the third best film in the series, which is fair enough given I doubt anything could top the first two.

It might not be likely given its poor opening, but I think it’s safe to say that if there is a sequel, I’ll be back to watch it.

Craigslist

Posted: July 5, 2015 in James Bond
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When it was announced that Pierce Brosnan was no longer going to play 007 I was annoyed, when it was further decreed that the next Bond was going to be Daniel Craig I was downright outraged. Not, I must stress, because he’s blonde (seriously it’s not like Roger had raven black hair!) but because I just didn’t rate him as an actor. Now to be fair I had only seen him in Layer Cake, which isn’t a terrible film but I thought he was fairly average in it, so the notion of him becoming the most iconic spy in history made my blood boil.

Should I ever meet Mr Craig the first thing I’ll do is apologise most profusely for ever doubting him*. This might be embarrassing for both of us but it has to be done. Because you see I think he’s a really, REALLY good James Bond.

I’ll talk about his other qualities in a moment, but first I’d like to mention something about his performance that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere, and it’s something I’ve always really liked. Watch his Bond and you’ll soon see how disposable things are. Gun out of ammo? Chuck it away. Beautiful woman knocked unconscious? Hand her off to a hotel worker…But it isn’t just that he does these things, it’s the way he does them. Watch how he tosses the keys to that Range Rover aside in Casino Royale, or how he throws his mobile to one side after calling M from Haiti in Quantum of Solace or what he does with his father’s hunting rifle (and it is a rifle not a shotgun) in Skyfall. He’s out of ammo so he just throws it to one side. Whether it’s a mobile phone or a finely crafted firearm that belonged to his dead dad it doesn’t make any difference. When things have served their purpose they’re of no further interest to 007. It’s a lovely little touch that he’s kept throughout his tenure and it always seems to be overlooked.

Craig, like Dalton, is an ac-tor but their interpretations do differ. Dalton’s Bond might be damaged by his job as a killer, but he still seems to enjoy the perks of that job, and there’s definitely still a certain hedonistic quality to his portrayal. By contrast Daniel Craig’s 007 seems to treat the trappings of success with disdain. He sports a flash watch, wears a dinner jacket, drinks the finest spirits, but you can’t shake the feeling that they’re meaningless distractions nothing more. Look in his eyes and it’s like a piece of his soul is missing. Even his quest for vengeance in Quantum of Solace seems, if not exactly hollow, then somewhat mechanical. I can never shake the feeling that his 007 is just going through the motions. I must stress, it’s not that Craig is going through the motions, I think it takes a good actor to portray the complexity of character that he does with just a flicker of his eyes. He is at once perhaps the most human of Bonds, yet by turns the least human.

His physical presence is a large part of what makes him great (I still remember my friend Simon remarking the first time he saw Casino Royale that he’d never been scared of a Bond before) and it’s even more impressive when you consider that he’s the shortest actor to play the role. He’s the first man since Connery to being that animal presence to his portrayal, like a tiger stalking its prey through the jungle.

This doesn’t mean he has no heart, clearly he feels the death of some people— Vesper, M, Mathis—even if at times it’s hard to gauge his feelings about others, watching his reaction after the deaths of Solange, or Agent Fields, or Severine I still can’t tell if he’s hiding his regret or just doesn’t give a shit. I think it’s clearer that he does care with Fields, but she still seems an acceptable casualty of his mission.

Even his reaction upon killing seems the vary, killing in cold blood he can do fine, but when it’s a hot-blooded kill his response is quite different, look at him after he makes his first kill, or after he kills that African warlord in the hotel in Casino Royale, and it’s like he appalled at what he’s done, maybe he’s just afraid to let his more bestial side out?

As a final point it’s hard to discuss Bond without mentioning humour. Like Dalton Craig is funny, and they share a very dry sense of humour. Unlike Dalton Craig is catered for quite well by his scripts in this regard.

If there is a downside to Daniel Craig, it’s that you never get the feeling he actually likes playing James Bond, and whilst I know it shouldn’t make a difference, sometimes it does make me like him a little less than I would otherwise. I don’t expect Brosnan-like glee, but crack a smile sometimes, Daniel!

He may not always look like a suave secret agent, but Daniel Craig is most assuredly James Bond, and I have to admit that, whilst Tim remains my Bond, Craig is so close behind that we’re almost into photo finish territory. Who knows Spectre might be the film that nudges him ahead?

So that’s it then, the six Bond from favourite to least favourite. You might not agree with my choices, in fact I’m be surprised if a lot of people didn’t downright disagree with them, but hopefully even if you don’t agree you can’t deny I’ve made my arguments rationally…for the most part.

Of course once Bond #7 turns up I’m going to have to revisit this list all over again!

Bond #001 Timothy Dalton
Bond #002 Daniel Craig
Bond #003 Roger Moore
Bond #004 Pierce Brosnan
Bond #005 George Lazenby
Bond #006 Sean Connery
* My friend Kay also has to apologise to him (Hey I’m not taking the rap alone on this!)