Sunday 24 November 2013

Film review: Catching Fire (Hunger Games book 2)

I read the Hunger Games (then, book 1 and only) several years ago when we bought it for Daniel in Spain in 2011. I enjoyed book 1 (as did D, and subsequently Miranda); and they've both read books 2 and 3, which I haven't (I briefly browsed the opening of book 2 and decided that I didn't like it).

The film is excellent, if you like an exciting action movie. The production quality is very high, it all looks excellent, and the pace is fast enough that the holes in the story / concept only jar briefly, and if you're watching for them. Some of the slightly subtle surrounding details of persons is good too: for example the metamorphosis of Effie from soulless PR-bot to someone still in that role - the change is not too jarring - but who cares about her team and their place.

The "hoverships" are lovely, they look like spaceships. Quite a few details of the districts are good too: the village-square bits, the thin snow cover, the housing, it all fits and looks and works well.

No more Mr Nice Guy

So, I genuinely think it was a well-done film: I enjoyed it, its pretty long, but it doesn't drag. Far from it; I was disappointed when it ended to realise it was over. However, I wouldn't be me if I didn't whinge a bit.

There are some trivial holes, which I'll mention as examples, but they also expose my contempt for the water-fat folk of Hollywood:

* when you see Katniss in the initial return-from-hunting scene, walking over rocks in the woods, its pretty clear that she's an actress walking in the woods; not someone used to it. Its in the way she moves, her awkwardness.
* In my experience, when there is snow lying on the ground and wind in the air its cold out, and you dress for it, hunkered down into warm clothes.
* Katniss has an infinite supply of arrows.

All trivia. Another one is the format of the Games themselves. We see them entirely from the viewpoint of the participants. But think of them from the viewpoint of the spectators - aren't they a bit boring? What you want to see is people stalking each other, cunning fighting, hardship, endurance. But death by poison gas is just a bit random. As is from waves of water.

The biggest hole, though, is the political structure of the world. The capitol is huge, as it has to be. New York, or London sized. Millions of people. All, apparently, living in luxury. District 12, by contrast, is small: the town-square meeting is of thousands, at most. There's no way these districts can possibly be meaningfully contributing to the economy of the capitol - the capitol is clearly not living off their backs. With that gone, the reason for oppressing them disappears too. I suppose you could wave this away - that the districts we see are only a sketch intended to represent a larger substance. It still seems hard to believe that, given their tech-level, the capitol would bother oppress these people.

Oh, yeah

I suppose the film could also be about making difficult choices: Katniss occasionally has to worry about the folks back home. And stuff. Balancing one good/bad against another. But a film is a bad place to explore such choices, and this one doesn't even try. Which is good; its there to be action, not thought.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Book review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Its a classic, innit? Anyone will tell you that. I enjoyed it; indeed, it was quite a page-turner. But... well, I'm not quite satisfied.

Oh, yeah: its a spy whodunnit. I can't talk about it without spoiling the surprise. Don't read on if you care.

The flaws

The flaws, the flaws, Carruthers! I think they are threefold: firstly, that it seems a very small world. To some extent the book begins to address, or talk around, this point towards the end: "Gerald" goes on about how small a place England has become. But what I mean is that the Circus seems to spend its whole time chasing its arse. Perhaps you can argue that for dramatic effect all other operations are elided? Secondly, it seems less original than it must once have. Perhaps it was The Original of the "there's a mole in our spy network" type story; but its a commonplace now, and that's the view I'm reading it from. Third was a plausibility problem: how does a retired spy end up subverting the whole Circus? That would be terrible security, if possible. How can Guillam so trivially steal and photograph files he's not entitled to? Oh yeah, and fourthly, I don't think the central plot is entirely believeable either: the idea that everyone was so naive as to believe an unexplained sudden flood of intelligence as genuine seems far fetched. Its also necessary that, say, Jim be so emotionally wound up after Testify that he not go talk to Smiley, which is unexplained; as it Smiley being sent away but Control during the operation. As indeed is Jim's bizarre decision to go ahead even though he knew he was compromised.

The virtues

But, its quite a good book. Well written. Good storyline. Exciting. Once you know the answer the denouement isn't a surprise but even so I could see myself reading it again, because its complex enough that on the first reading you'll miss stuff.

Something worth calling out - though the text does point it out, several times, because it is the central cleverness and he doesn't want you to miss it - is the cuteness of the "knot": by allowing the idea that a genuine Russian source had to be fed "chickenfeed" in exchange for his high-quality stuff, it was necessary for there to be a fake-mole in the Circus, who should not be investigated; and therefore the true mole could hide behind the fake mole.

Sunday 17 November 2013

Book review: Stations of the Tide / Vacuum Flowers

PXL_20210213_085520169~2 By Michael Swanwick (who also wrote the promising but ultimately disappointing The Iron Dragon's Daughter, as well as the best forgotten Bones of the Earth).

As usual, there isn't much to be said without revealing the plot, so the key take-home messages are:

* both are excellent,
* I've read them before and I'll read them again,
* they've got new ideas and new thoughts in them.

They're both, rather vaguely, set in the same universe. But I can't really tell you more about that until I talk about the plot. So if you haven't already read them, I advise you to stop here and go read them.

The Plot

VF sets the scene for SOTT. But I read SOTT first. There's a scene - somewhat towards the end of SOTT, as the Bureaucrat starts to unravel the mystery - where he talks to Earth's Avatar in the Miranda system. Its a delight, and I found it powerful and memorable. But it won't make much sense unless you've read VF.

Umm, actually, I find that I don't really want to tell you the plot. What would be the point? If you've read it, you know it, and if you haven't, you don't, and a  potted summary really won't help you. Let talk, instead, about...

The Ideas

So, like I say, they're linked, but it only matters a bit. In the first book, Rebel Elizabeth Mudlark is questing the solar system trying to work out who she is, and ends up at Earth, talking to Earth aka the Comprise, which is now a hive mind (there's a slightly implausible explanation of why Earth is confined to the Earth, except for a few who those who live in space let out; given the tech Earth has, I think it would be trivial for it to sweep them away; but no matter, it suits the book. And there's a partial explanation of this anyway, which is that Earth needs Integrity).

So Earth has tech (transit rings, but not FTL), but the Dyson-tree folk of the Oort cloud have biotech, in particular mindtech, and Earth wants Integrity, which will allow it to glob off lumps of itself and send them starwards, and not have them fall apart into not-Earth2. And it turns out that a Wizard of the cloud has sent REM in, as a cross between a finger of herself and a sale item; and that although wetware reprogramming is commonplace, her personality is resilient, due to said Integrity.

In the end, a bargain is struck, and Earth gets Integrity in exchange for Tech; both sides get the stars, if I recall correctly. The armless child representing Earth is a nice touch; vulnerability.


Cut, to

Back at Stations of the Tide, things move at a gentler pace. The first scene is set on an airship (how people love airships!) and the magician makes his mysterious appearance1 - and disappearance - and the theme of magic, or rather not really magic (I have to say that, rather than "of course", because this is scifi; but its scifi not fantasy: there is no "true magic") but the ability of people to convince others of magic. SOTT is a darker book than VF.

And here too the theme of integrity comes back, in the need to be grounded in reality, and the way people can be fooled into destroying themselves. How well would you survive under the onslaught of such magic? I'm not describing this well: really, read the book.

The ending is good - unlike so many other books, there really is an ending, with (many bonus points, since this is scifi) a gloriously humourous bit when then Bureaucrat finally tells his briefcase for the third time to construct some illegal tech.

And I haven't even told you about the trip to the edge to meet Earth. Its well done, and the bits that can be done are well sketched in without breaking the other bits. In this kind of stuff, that's a lot of the skill.


I've re-read Vacuum Flowers and enjoyed it again. What jars a little perhaps - now the shock of the story has worn off - is the implausibility of the chain of events taking REM to Earth. And I notice the similarities in style to Neuromancer. But, still good. Still excellent? I'd certainly recommend it over an awful lot of other stuff.

And now SotT. Again, good. But holes begin to open up: just why did Gregorian want to be chased? It isn't clear. There's a faint explanation at the end, but it was not terribly plausible and I instantly forgot it. There's also - I'm tempted to call it crude, but I've only just noticed it, so maybe it isn't - an unpleasant feature: the Bureaucrat is pushed around by all these worldly-wise magicians of the Tidewater, but has the last laugh: he not only has higher tech, he can actually do the things they merely pretend to. Isn't this a bit revenge-of-the-nerds type stuff? Trivia: the "tsunami" from melting ice caps would not of course be any such thing: it would be gradual. And I find the long-seasonal dimorphism implausible, just as it was in Heliconia: I doubt evolution can do that.


1. (Added 2021): in fact this isn't the magician. Also note that the magicians of SOTD are not the same sort of magicians as VF: they are manipulators of people's minds, somewhat in the manner of our stage magicians; not people skilled at manipulating actual reality.

2. Which when you think about it is very much the same "society shall not decay" that Plato wants and that Popper criticises him for.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Book review: Proxima

Summary: its junk.

Other people have different opinions (oops, deadlink, try Goodreads), but they are wrong.

If you're reading on past this point, I'll assume you don't care about me spoiling the surprise, not that there is any, so I won't take any care to hide the plot.

The worst thing about this is that its not total junk; there are some interesting ideas in there. But the ideas are badly handled, indeed the whole book is profligate with its miracles. If you're writing Fantasy, then every Elven kingdom can have its own magic, and the more the better. If you're trying to write "hard SF" as this guy is, then the game is to wring as much interest out of as few violations of the known laws as possible. Not to randomly splatter the book with new implausibilities, just because your poor tired imagination has run out of interesting consequences for what you've made up so far.

The sort-of basic premise is moderately interesting: what might a colony on a tidally-locked planet of a red dwarf be like? Unfortunately, the book totally stuffs up even trying to explore it.

Firstly, and utterly bizarrely, the mega-expensive task of colonising is shambolically amateurish: the colonists are a bunch of ex-cons. This is utterly implausible; who would spend such a vast amount of money on colonisation, then set it up to fail? I guess he is harking back to British colonisation of Australia; but if so, it doesn't work. His colonists get no training at all; they are deliberately spread out over the planet in small groups. Then, the astronauts that took them all the way to Alpha Centauri go back to Earth. That is so mind-bogglingly fuck-witted that its hard to believe even a sci-fi author would do it.

Secondly (and here the profigacy starts to come in) although his characters have (correctly (update: or maybe not? See this recent report)) made much of the stability of red dwarfs, no sooner do his people turn up than the sun turns variable and it starts to get cold. Aie, its so stupid. Not only that, but that level of variation would have been visible from Earth, so we'd know about it. His characters then start migrating across the planet, but in a very uninteresting way, they might just as well have been in a Little House on the Prairie not on a tidally locked planet.

A bit later it turns out that there's a Mysterious Alien Artifact on the planet which just happens to be some kind of hyperspace gateway (but a lightspeed one, ho ho, pretending to keep his credentials intact) back into the solar system. At which point, not one of his characters turns to any one of the others and says to themselves "fuck me, but that's a bit of a co-incidence isn't it? Humans happen to have gone to precisely one extra-solar planet, and that planet just happens to have a gateway back to the solar system".

Meanwhile, back in the solar system, amongst some tedious badly imagined politics, one of the other characters goes into the gateway there and (this bit wasn't well described) emerges with a twin. And suddenly her entire life has been re-written backwards in everyone's memory so that this has always been so. Everywhere but in her own mind. Oh, and on her mothers gravestone, which mysteriously gets forgotten to be re-written. The book provides no explanation for why this twinning might be done (much less of an explanation of how the re-writing might be done), and nothing interesting happens as a consequence, so it is not just profligate, but pointless mindless profligacy.

Meanwhile, in yet more profigacy, a sort of light-sail AI is also sent to Proxima, but does nothing interesting when it gets there; it just hides around the far side. Where yet another fucking expedition from Earth, this time a solo one, has died quietly in the wilderness. Its all so mind-bogglingly badly thought out I just can't bear to write any more.