Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Director: Denis Villeneuve

**** (4 stars) review by J.C. Hartley
As Danny Kaye and Frank Loesser would have it ‘The King is in the altogether, but altogether, the altogether’, and so on. I’m not actually saying that Blade Runner 2049 is a case of the Emperor’s new clothes, but despite the display of five stars from various publications adorning the DVD box, I’m not convinced that it’s the seamless masterpiece those ratings might suggest. In the LA of Blade Runner’s dystopian future, it’s a case of plus ça change.  Following an uprising by the Nexus replicants bio-engineered by the Tyrell corporation, culminating in an EMP attack resulting in the ‘Blackout’, replicant production was banned. Enter Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) whose visionary technology has restored food production and arguably saved the world, as well as continuing to advance off-world colonisation. Planet Earth, and particularly the L.A. of the film, is still an ecological disaster area. Wallace’s new generation of replicants are subservient slaves, constrained by protocols similar to Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, but Tyrell-era Nexus replicants are still at large, hidden in plain sight due to the data-loss brought about by the Blackout. Ryan Gosling’s ‘K’, an obvious reference to Kafka’s troubled hero from The Trial (1925), is a replicant blade runner tasked with hunting down and ‘retiring’ his own kind.

During a confrontation with the replicant ex-soldier Sapper Morton (played by go-to heavy-with-a-heart Dave Bautista), at the latter’s protein farm, K is told he has ‘never seen a miracle’. K discovers a grave which is revealed to contain the skeleton of a female replicant who died giving birth by caesarean section.  To prevent exposure of the discovery that replicants can sexually reproduce, K’s superior officer Lieutenant Joshi (Wright) orders K to find and ‘retire’ the child.  At the Wallace corporation HQ, K is able to access pre-Blackout records belonging to the former Tyrell Corporation. His investigations reveal that the dead female’s remains are those of an advanced replicant named Rachael, who absconded with blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). However, Niander Wallace is also determined to find the child, in order to unlock the secret of replicant reproduction, and orders his replicant assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to track her down. 

Alongside the police procedural of Blade Runner 2049 we see something of K’s home life. K lives with Joi (Ana de Armas) a holographic female interactive A.I. who fulfils the role of wife and companion. In a frankly baffling scene, K gives her the gift of an emanator which expands her sensory range and allows her to move beyond the limits of K’s apartment. Although de Armas performs her role with commendable sincerity, the sheer silliness of the concept acted like a dead weight on the film for me, dragging it back like the anchor on Dick Dastardly’s Mean Machine. 

For the expanded edition of the late Brian Aldiss’ Supertoys Last All Summer Long (2001), the author revealed his parting-of-the-ways with film director Stanley Kubrick, over their different visions for a film of the original eponymous short story, which imagined a future where childless couples could ‘raise’ artificial surrogates. Aldiss claimed that Kubrick became obsessed with adapting the story as a re-telling of the tale of Pinocchio. K’s relationship with Joi brought this back to mind. Is Joi K’s Jiminy Cricket, or his Blue Fairy? The parallel is made even more striking when Lieutenant Joshi suggests that K might become ‘a real boy’. 

A further point of reference, this time to The Matrix trilogy, suggests itself when K starts to believe that he might be Rachael’s replicant child, a sort of messiah for replicants everywhere. This plot-line arises out of his implanted memories which tantalisingly summon up incidents from a ‘remembered’ childhood. As one assumes that replicants are brought into the world fully-formed as adults, like the Uruk-hai Orcs in Lord of the Rings, a fact confirmed by Wallace’s overseeing of a replicant ‘birth’ early in the picture, clearly K’s ‘memory’ of his childhood must be an implant, a situation he accepts. K then uncovers evidence that suggests his implanted memories might be genuine, something confirmed when he visits Dr Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) a memory designer, who works for Wallace from the confines of a sterile ‘bubble’ due to a deficient immune system. K’s belief is later unpicked when he encounters the replicant freedom movement, and it is revealed that all replicants believe themselves to be Rachael’s child. 

The film suffers somewhat by the weight of history behind it.  While it will be perfectly possible for a newcomer to the world of Blade Runner 2049 to enjoy the film without ever seeing its influential precursor, familiarity with the earlier film obviously allows for the minimum of exposition, its themes already apparent to that audience. The great drawback of this is that long-term fans of the ‘franchise’ are impatiently waiting for the introduction of Deckard. The fact that Gosling perambulates through the action like a morose cocktail-sausage only emphasises Ford’s portrayal of Deckard’s vulnerable damaged humanity.  But that was intentional, right? Ford and original director Ridley Scott famously disagreed over whether Deckard was a replicant, Ford saying no, his director saying yes. A ridiculous question, and one suggesting that Scott misunderstood his own material, Deckard clearly has to be human. It would be nice to think that Denis Villeneuve has deliberately directed Gosling as replicant K to downplay any hints of human empathy, in the way that Kubrick presented the people of the world of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as practically de-humanised automatons, however I’m not convinced this is the case. 

In this the bi-centenary of the first publication of the three-volume edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), it seems appropriate to consider source material and themes. In his history of science fiction, Billion Year Spree (1973), Aldiss not only declares Frankenstein to be ‘the first real novel of science fiction’ but saw in it ‘the seeds of all later diseased creation myths’. If James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is famously a novel no one has read, Frankenstein, like its post-Gothic counterpart Dracula (1897), is a novel people haven’t read but think they know. Familiar through its creative afterlives, Frankenstein, is much more than the ‘diseased creation myth’ Aldiss acknowledges, but is ‘accompanied by a psychological depth’. After Frankenstein’s creature is rejected by his creator, and realising that his appearance militates against his acceptance by humanity, he acquires language and culture but finds himself still facing rejection. He urges his creator to make him a mate, but Frankenstein, wary that a pair of creatures will engender a race of monsters, aborts his female creation. 

Having already murdered Frankenstein’s younger brother, the creature then goes on to murder his friend Clerval and his fiancée Elizabeth. The creature as the instrument of monstrous acts is the character that has survived through the original novel’s creative afterlives, but Shelley was careful to show that it was the human Frankenstein who lacked the very qualities of emotional attachment that his creature was desperate to find fulfilled. In Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (1968), another novel that people have probably never read but might think they know, Phillip K. Dick mixed cultural and economic satire, with his trademark philosophical musings. The androids of Dick’s novel are concerned not only with their own survival but in exposing the religious cult of Mercerism as a sham. Mercerism is based on the ability of humans to share empathy, the thing that sets them apart from the androids, if the androids can debunk the humans’ belief system, the distinction between human and machine-human becomes blurred. 

In Blade Runner, Deckard and Rachael’s love affair, and the replicants’ emotional attachment to each other, acknowledged a post-human evolution.  Roy Batty’s emotional monologue at the end of the picture, ruined for me by a lady’s stifled snort of derision behind me in the cinema (actually I thought the doves were pretty corny too), confirmed the replicants’ very human aspirations.  Does Blade Runner 2049 move the story on by having a replicant as the central character, displaying the same 21st century angst as the humans around him, seeking to assuage his loneliness with ever-more advanced technological companions and casual sex? It’s a bleak portrait if one looks beyond the shoot ‘em up police story. Personally, I’d have preferred a tighter and considerably shorter story, Blade Runner got its themes over in less time, and I don’t believe the intervening 35 years has made for any more depth or sophistication in the argument. The new film does look fantastic, and credit must go to Roger Deakins’ superb cinematography. 

An interesting set of extras with a rather repetitive set of links. There are three filmed prologues filling in the intervening years between the original Blade Runner and the new film. 2022: Blackout is an anime by Shinichirō Watanabe depicting the triggering of the EMP device by Nexus replicants. 2036: Nexus Dawn by Luke Scott shows Wallace attempting to get the authorities to lift the ban on replicant production, and 2048: Nowhere to Run, also by Scott, shows Morton’s flight from L.A., and the tip-off that leads to K tracking him down. A mixture of talking-heads and footage, Blade Runner 101: Replicant Evolution, Blade Runners, The Rise Of Wallace Corp, Welcome To 2049, Jois, Within The Skies: Spinners, Pilotfish, & Barracudas, introduces some of the background, and technology, in the film.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon
Richard Morgan

Gollancz paperback £8.99

**** (4 stars) review by Christopher Geary   

Reprinted as a tie-in book for its adaptation as a Netflix TV series, Richard Morgan’s debut SF novel, Altered Carbon (2001), is a genre-busting, hardboiled noir murder mystery, with body-swap identity crises, and plenty of ingenious gadgetry that’s used, and abused, in the service of mass slaughter and cyberpunk adventure.

Takeshi Kovacs was an agent for the UN Protectorate on Harlan’s World. After being killed in action, his mind is transmitted to Earth and he’s reborn in a rented body and hired by a wealthy private citizen to investigate a suspicious death. If that sounds bizarre, his employer is also formerly deceased, resurrected with no recent memory, and wants to know whether he actually committed suicide or not. Kovacs has never been on Earth before. So, in addition to hostility from local cops and the unnerving experience of waking up with a new face, he has culture shock, old religion, and some variant social mores to contend with.

The practicalities of immortality are a common SF theme. Here, the process is such an everyday occurrence that cloned or rental bodies are called ‘sleeves’ and police detectives are more concerned with sorting out ‘organic damage’ than increasingly rare homicide. Kovacs finds himself caught up in political machinations with ethical and moral implications for the ‘re-sleeve’ trade on both sides of the law, and is forced to resort to extremely violent means to make progress with his inquiries. Blade Runner is an obvious inspiration for some of the plot mechanics here, and Morgan does an excellent job of mixing Philip K. Dick’s mind-expanding ideas with the literary attitude and relentless cyber narratives popularised in the late 1980s by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.

Remarkably detailed and convincingly matter-of-fact, Altered Carbon sets out to amuse and thrill readers with its darkly savage humour and pulverising shoot ’em up fire-fights. If that’s not enough for you, there’s also deeply intriguing crime drama, sharply defined characters with quirky idiosyncrasies, a worthy hero facing down staggering odds, and a satisfying conclusion that manages to defy spy-fi conventions. You want frissons? Genre glee? Paranoid paroxysms? Altered Carbon surpasses all expectations! 

Sunday, 28 January 2018

SF: A Literary History

Science Fiction: A Literary History
Edited by Roger Luckhurst

British Library hardcover £20

***** (5 stars) review by Christopher Geary    

A splendidly concise historical narrative emerges from this collection of new essays, exploring conceptual sources, miscellaneous influences, unpredictable developments, and - nowadays, especially - the vast scope of genre SF, roughly defined as speculative storytelling balancing utopian and dystopian streams, alongside many alternaties and writing styles. 

With incisive commentaries on proto-SF and the effervescent pulps, the book ploughs through assorted definitions and revisions, noting the murky origins of a genre which poetically agrees with the uncertainty of quantum theories rather than the cosmology of a Big Bang. The ‘new stranger’ of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein might be a favourite, but the journeys of H.G. Wells and the voyages of Jules Verne form a foundation with greater variety that consolidates ideas from romanticism into a mono-mythic quality. Each chapter concludes with a listing of ‘what to read next’ that any genre newcomers might find an extremely useful guide to essential classics and other canonical texts.

The book’s editor Roger Luckhurst contributes much contextual evidence in chapter two: From Scientific Romance To Science Fiction, explaining how framed discussions about ‘creative destruction’ shouldered aside challenges to a marvellous authenticity from occultism and colonialism, to embrace a ‘global modernity’. Caroline Edwards’ chapter, Utopian Prospects, charts the rise of racial tensions and feminism in dreams of decadence, and the menace of increasingly apocalyptic visions, where all optimistic viewpoints fail because of human imperfections and hard truths fuel harder SF where only maths might reign supreme.  

The New Wave Revolution by Rob Latham notes “R.A. Lafferty... sometimes labelled a New Waver because his fiction is weird and delirious, but a careful reading of his work makes clear that the only faction he belonged to was extraterrestrial in origin.” It’s an amusing jest that further characterises the typically off-beat nature of SF when examined in light of the genre’s formative apprehension from speculative rationalism. Chapter six also offers, among other astute comments, a corrective to wild tales of pro and fandom woe about ‘holy wars’ between pulp-inspired empires of trad SF and canny rebels of a New Wave alliance. This book notes that 1960s’ cultural aspirations changed ‘golden age’ SF, not by revolutionary upheaval against existing social mores but by enlightenment and mutation of an already stable form.

There are considerable overlaps in the informative coverage between the chapters on eras, generations, and specific genre movements, but it’s all to be expected because everything is connected - whether by common themes, technological advances of the publishing industry and systems of book distribution, or new thinking about future possibilities heralded by political and social changes at global scales. Great minds of various writers might simply imagine the same things, of course, without any actual copycat books being the result.       

“We live in an era of obsolete futures and junked dreams,” suggests Gerry Canavan’s New Paradigms chapter, where dodged bullets and post-millennial anticipation runs the gamut of prediction from SF in today’s cultural dystopia and climate change when the post-normalism of the inadequate Singularity becomes our Anthropocene period. Can a space opera renaissance and escapism into virtual gaming provide sufficient SF thrust to lift human spirits beyond a one-world horizon?

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Art Of Horror Movies

The Art Of Horror Movies: An Illustrated History
Edited by Stephen Jones

Applause hardcover $40

***** (5 stars) review by Christopher Geary   

Since the beginnings of cinema, horror on screen has been troubled and distinguished by the difference between the explicit and the merely suggestive. Whether purveyors of generic imagery intended to scare audiences with atmospheric settings and lurking menace, or shock them with raw terror and gory displays of special effects, the results might be just as impressive and quite artistically valid. Perhaps even strong enough... provocative enough in its vicarity to promote catharsis. Celebrating the contributions of painters, illustrators, and creature designers, to a century of delicious frissons and ghastly disgust, this companion to The Art Of Horror (2015), that was also edited by Stephen Jones, delivers the very goodies and nasty baddies in a beautifully presented hardback packed with a stunning range of colour and B&W pictures. 

Writers, directors, and actors made a considerable impact upon horror movies, but it must be acknowledged that genre cinema would not exist without the essential works of visionary artists. After the foreword by John Landis on the iconography of horror, standout chapters are Christopher Frayling’s exhumation of sinister expressionism in the silent era noting the diversity of influences, including romantic literature, theatre, and crazy carnival traditions, upon a veritable onslaught of surreal gothic portrayals.    

Noir of the 1940s is revisited by Barry Forshaw, who notes the decade’s filmmakers’ imagination and ingenuity overcoming the strict limitations imposed by Hays code censorship, by “subverting the permissible” in pursuit of the macabre. Even as horror is almost crippled by parody, the rise of lurid colour cinema as a new standard saved the genre.   

Studios with style in the 1960s, championed by psychedelic pop culture remixed with fetishistic gore, are charted by Kim Newman. Shifting from period settings into more contemporary scenarios distinguished urban horror from traditional source material, and the gruelling spectacle of warfare on TV prompted an escalation of shock as new zombies arrived, straight from hell, in George A. Romero’s groundbreaking Night Of The Living Dead (1968).  
After the creators of major special effects became iconic stars in their own right in the 1980s, when a video nasty scandal and genre revisionism dominated works by horror auteurs, Anne Billson considers the 1990s' offerings that were often driven by pre-millennial anxieties leading a transition from B-movie fun to a fearsome mainstream. But that was before the dismal end-of-century trend for ‘found footage’ threatened to turn genre cinema and no-budget media into a cultural dystopia. As usual with this type of art book, texts and captions provide the chronicle’s broad sweep, while images deliver the depth. And, really, this is worth buying as an Xmas gift for any fans you know if only for its gallery of eye-catching portraits... Dorian Gray, included. 

Tuesday, 14 November 2017


Adrian Tchaikovsky

Solaris hardcover £25 / $30

*** (3 stars) review by Donald Morefield   

New war in Europe rages between US corporate forces and plucky Nordics. While the steadfast Russians invest in formidable reputations and giant ‘Jodorowsky’ helicopter gunships, the mega-wealthy Americans depend on their privileged heirs and favoured brats as armoured ‘Scions’ - protected by the very best battle-kit accessories that dark money can buy. The more progressive states, like Finland, develop meta-were-human combatants with abilities so far beyond the customised but familiar wraparound suits of a captain iron-man and his ilk.

Basically, this standalone novella starts off as a sci-fi version of Saving Private Ryan (1998), with super-soldiers. Sergeant Ted Regan is ordered to lead a small team on a rescue mission behind enemy lines only to find that he’s completely expendable in the on-going conflicts between vast global commerce and seething political idealism. Can the Sarge’s band of wholly underestimated heroes rebel against their elitist superiors, and fight on to save the world from the masters of mankind?

This type of genre storytelling is probably best presented as a graphic novel. Indeed, it’s war-punk themes and hi-tech notions are very similar to a few recent adventures in the world of independent comics. Warren Ellis has tackled such ideas before and he remains the subgenre’s finest practitioner of neo-military SF and political intrigue. Adrian Tchaikovsky sketches in his characters well enough but, ultimately, the merry little band of heroes fail to fully engage this reader’s sympathy and make me care very much about any of their fates or successes, whether they are exploited humans or the underdog superheroes. 

Saturday, 13 May 2017

New York 2140

New York 2140
Kim Stanley Robinson

Orbit hardcover £20

***** (5 stars) review by Christopher Geary   

Just like his book ‘2312’ presented us with a cogent picture of post-human futurism in a fully populated Solar system, this instantly engaging novel scales down SF narrative from interplanetary concerns to matters with a closer focus on a single city, albeit one with global renown and vigorous citizens. New York 2140 is a distinctly pro American take on Ballard’s Drowned World views. Not so much an exploration of eco-regressive traits, as in Ballard’s London of 2145, this type of US SF is, ultimately, about escaping from debt as the modern form of slavery. They don’t own you but you owe them is the message, and that’s the way they like it... until something changes the system.      

Manhattan is a flooded island, now a super-Venice project becoming a centre for new breeds and brands of wholly progressive - not recalcitrant - survivalists, and home to a colourful batch of unlikely heroes with or without political ambitions and important practical guidance from extended, meta-familial attachments. There’s Charlotte, the reluctant politico; Vlade, the building superintendent; Amelia, the flying starlet of a cloud-media circus; Franklin, the rogue trader with a hedged betting scheme/ scam to burst the cluster-cloistered financial world’s new bubble; Gen, the big black female police inspector; Mutt and Jeff, a pair of brain-trust ‘brothers’ from nerds-ville; and a couple of crazy kids, Stefan and Roberto, the gloriously rebellious orphans and chums without a cause that bring Huckleberry elements of reckless (bight me!) adventure to the solidly pragmatic and watertight drama of big issues.    

Here are tales from the burning edge of edginess and the waving-not-drowning moral panics of careerist interlopers bound together by authorial voice of ‘the citizen’ whose chapters provide both insider knowledge relief, and incisive commentary of a ranking outsider. New York 2140 is not any sort of New Atlantis, it’s far more grimly realistic, despite a gloomily predictive model of how badly rampant climate change could very soon devastate coastlines and break economies around the world. In keeping with previous works, Kim Stanley Robinson maintains his firmly ingrained, but non-dogmatic, anti-capitalist and pro-social themes that surge and ebb like tides throughout the storyline and its numerous historical references. Comedy and tragedy rub shoulders, and nobody emerges from the murky aftermath of the climate-climactic and catastrophic storm unscathed. 

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Massacre Of Mankind

The Massacre Of Mankind
Stephen Baxter

Gollancz hardcover £18.99

**** (4 stars) review by Christopher Geary

Stephen Baxter wrote the award-winning novel The Time Ships (1995), an excellent sequel to classic book The Time Machine (1895) by H.G. Wells, and so Baxter is the perfect choice for this sequel to Wells’ greatest work, The War Of The Worlds (1898). The Massacre Of Mankind picks up the story in the 1920s when the Martians are preparing for their much feared return to Earth, as predicted by astronomers view of Mars, a world of “red lakes, green continents” - harbouring busily intelligent, but entirely unsympathetic, life with ancient rivals in the Solar system clearly the wiser residents of Jupiter.    

The heroine and narrator of this adventure, ex-suffragette Julie, returns to a Britain where paranoia under military rule, in league with Germany, seems a necessary evil, despite defences bolstered by the technological fallout from Martian warfare in 1907 that, amongst other accomplishments, ensured that the ship’s armour-plating applied to the Titanic proved the famous ocean-liner really was unsinkable. Emerging from its period melodrama, the best SF content here is found in speculative paragraphs about origins of the Martian slave labourers, some Cytherean amphibians from Venus, and the cosmological implications of inhabited planets within reach of conventional rockets. 

Baxter manages to shoehorn a full set of eclectic WOTW references - to Orson Welles’ radio broadcast, Hollywood’s classic 1956 movie, Jeff Wayne’s album, and even Wells himself - into this roundly international storyline, with glowing fan-boy reverence for such meta-fictional asides. And the great philosophical question of human futurism is also keenly addressed: does a threat from space of ET invasion unite the world? There is a heartfelt and hopeful answer and, of course, this narrative’s conclusion is never in any doubt, but Baxter springs a genre medley of clever twists along the way to a finale that Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass might find suitably appealing.