Sunday, 27 January 2008

Shorter is better

More Alastair Reynolds. But short stories rather than a novel this time, Galactic North. All set within his Revelation Space universe, but only some with direct connections to existing narratives set there. However, those that aren't directly connected usually shed light on parts of this future history that have hitherto only been hinted at.

Short stories are definitely a strong point for science fiction. They allow the author to explore an interesting idea without the expectation of character development. Several of the stories here go one step further in a way by allowing the author to dispense even further with characterisation since several of the characters are known to readers already (though this does create potentially interesting trade-offs between new and familiar readers). Anyway, the stories here represent excellent examples of the short story form while additionally being satisfying for readers already familiar with Reynolds' Revelation Space.

The first two stories deal with the character Nevil Clavain and his "defection" to the Conjoiner faction of humanity. The stories slot nicely into gaps in Reynolds' novels and flesh out relationships between various characters. They're also good stories in their own right, particularly the second one which approximates a good whodunnit on an alien world. The final story in the collection, Galactic North, initially takes place during the Revelation Space novels but, through time dilation, takes in a much broader sweep of history. It reveals the long term outcome of the conflict between humanity, the Inhibitors and the human-made Greenfly. Possibly a mistake on Reynolds' part to lay out in some detail what might have made for a good novel down the line. Still, he's certainly left himself wriggle room, and I'm sure he's smart enough to milk his future history some more.

Other stories in the collection take the form of a love story set in Revelation Space, Weather; a spy story dealing with modified humans used as slaves in the oceans of Europa, A Spy In Europa; the undoing of a collector of rare and exotic animals, Grafenwalder's Bestiary; and an adventure aboard a ghost ship with a conscience, Nightingale.

For readers unfamiliar with Revelation Space, the stories will likely be particularly exciting since they draw, teasingly, on a rich and carefully thought-through history and geography. However, there's a lot here for readers, such as myself, who are more familiar with this universe. Being short, and not forced to create a grand narrative, they also avoid some of the problems of fatigue that Reynolds' novels suffer to a degree from (Pushing Ice being a notable exception). Avoiding detailed characterisation also works to Reynolds' advantage here (much as it has done for other science fiction authors like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov).

Anyway, I'll certainly be keeping an eye out for further volumes like this one by Reynolds.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Straight from the airport lounge

Last Light by Alex Scarrow is a classic airport thriller with a difference. Rather than positing sinister events put into motion but ultimately set to rights with the world put back to normal, this novel has the idea of Peak Oil and the long-term consequences of this "Big Idea" at its core. Things are very much not back to normal by its end.

Structurally the novel follows a single family separated by vocation, marital difficulties and public school. Events in the outside world, the shutdown of oil production, conspire to fuel a crisis that rapidly spreads globally embroiling this family in a desperate fight for survival. One strand follows the oil engineer father as he struggles to return to London from the oil fields of Iraq. Another follows his wife as she struggles to return to London from a job interview in Manchester. Another follows his daughter as she struggles to return to London from UEA with an assassin on her tail. Can you see the pattern there?

While absorbing all of the elements of a classic potboiler, the novel is saved, to a degree, by its rather real-world premise and by its all-too-convincing exposition of what could happen if, suddenly, our energy supplies dried up. It certainly isn't saved by its writing, which reads, more or less, like a screenplay treatment. Characters serve only to advance plot or to introduce ideas the author wants to discuss (not dissimilarly to the Master Of The Potboiler: Michael Crichton). And the plot is simply a relentless drive forward through event after lethal event. Which isn't to say that it's not a compelling read. While it is slightly shorter than Brick Lane, I finished it in less than three days. Short, punchy chapters do help here.

I say "saved to a degree" because it does fluff it towards the end. While comprehensively managing to avoid the cliched happy ending, it does slip up in unfolding its sinister plot. Rather than making the plot a far-fetched-but-still-credible tale of contemporary oil/government interests, out of the blue it instead posits a rather ridiculous centuries-long conspiracy in which just about every event of the past 1000 years has been carefully choreographed by a group of unspecified "evil do-ers" (who, of course, see themselves as Mankind's saviours). This struck me as both preposterous and unnecessary. It's impossible to see how such a conspiracy could both massively engineer civilisation while remaining completely invisible. I can see how individual events in history could be stage-managed without leaving many fingerprints, but the whole of Western history? The novel would have actually worked better if the nature of the conspiracy was left unspecified.

Anyway, a compelling if trashy read. With a bit of luck, the message at its core will get a few more people thinking about how we cope with the end of oil. This is almost certainly within my lifetime, but it doesn't appear that anyone's really thinking hard about it. I fear that the Julian Simons of this world have got their message across too successfully.

Film then Book, or Book then Film?

Brick Lane by Monica Ali follows the life of a Bangladeshi woman and her journey from her childhood in Bangladesh through to adulthood and an arranged marriage in London.

Nazneen leaves Bangladesh and her motherless sister at the age of 18 to marry the much-older Chanu and live in the United Kingdom. Over the years that pass, Nazneen is never able to see her sister, but maintains a link via letters reproduced in the novel. A major strand in the novel is how the lives of the two sisters diverge from one another, driven by their geographical locations and their arranged/love marriages.

While living in London, Nazneen begins a family, giving birth first to a son who dies an infant, then later to two daughters, to whom Bangladesh affords few attractions. Chanu, keen to return a "big man" to Bangladesh plans the family's move back to Bangladesh throughout the novel, to the dismay of his daughters, but with mixed feelings for Nazneen. Keen to re-establish the link with her sister, she also wishes to protect her daughters, all the while gradually assimilating herself into life in the UK.

Part of this assimilation sees her becoming a seamstress to provide money for the family, but this brings with it the temptations of another man. The resolution of this strand is contrasts strongly with related events in her sister's life. The novel also explores in the opposite of assimilation, painting the life of an immigrant to the UK in the 1990s and 2000s; taking in the events of 11th September 2001 and the consequences of its fallout for Muslims.

So far, so descriptive. Judging simply from the time I took to read this novel, I clearly had trouble with it. Most of this stalling stems from me having seen the film of the novel shortly before reading it. [Begin: digression into novel-to-film transitions ...] Like so many films of novels, this fillets the novel in the process of rendering it into a 2-ish hour experience. In my experience, this is a much, much better approach than slavishly squeezing every detail of a novel into its cinematic incarnation. This latter path leads to films where, essentially, a lot of stuff happens, and quickly. The best films allow the story they contain to evolve organically at a pace that suits visual storytelling. This, however, favours shorter novels, where characters can be fleshed out gradually, detail by detail. And shorter novels rarely attract the same adulation that long, detailed novels inspire in readers. Anyway, this is hardly discussing the book, so I'll stop. To summarise quickly though: if you are translating a novel to the screen, fillet the novel to avoid too much happening at once.

Back to the novel. Despite me taking ages over it, it was a good and interesting read. The characters, especially Chanu and Nazneen's sister, are particularly well-drawn. For instance, one's perception of Chanu changes through the novel, but not because he does things that change how he comes across. Instead, the reader (this reader anyway) gradually comes to understand him better, and this casts his earlier actions in the novel in a different light as the novel unfolds. The evolution of Nazneen's sister is similarly involving, although in contrast this involves events in her life. And, of course, Nazneen herself is a compelling creation, gradually evolving from a "girl from the village" into a woman more confident in her juggling of the traditions of her childhood with the modern west.

Getting back to the film for a minute, as already noted it did a great job filleting the novel. While the novel has more (and more fully developed) characters, the film focuses in on Nazneen's immediate family, allowing it to avoid compressing in subplots that, while good in the novel, would only complicate a film (e.g. Nazneen's friend's son's struggle with drugs). The film does miss a couple of tricks though. Less significantly, it skips over the troubles that afflicted the real Brick Lane, and which form the backdrop towards the end of the novel. It replaces this with Nazneen simply pursuing her daughter into a tube station. Not sure why. A more significant lapse with the film is, I feel, its handling of Nazneen's sister. In the novel, while she does make a series of mistakes in her life, it's clear that much of what happens to her is largely beyond her control. In the film, by contrast, her seemingly romantic adventures from her letters are ultimately used to portray her as a prostitute (or something similar). That's not something that I think is intended in the novel, though she does seem to drift from one Sugar Daddy to another. This narrative device does actually work in the film, but just doesn't seem faithful to the character in the novel.

Finally, to return to the title of this post: film then book, or book then film? Obviously the latter, but I did admire the skill by which this novel was turned into a film.

Friday, 11 January 2008

While I remember ...

Just while I remember, I need to write something down about Brick Lane, Last Light, and Galactic North at some point. Polished all of those off in the last couple of weeks.

What happened to December?

The usual run up to Christmas and New Year is what happened. Still, that only really applies to the tail end of December - prior to that simple laziness conspired to leave my blog vacuous (well, vacuous-in-the-lack-of-words sense).

Sticking to tradition, my birthday involved a trip up to London for various art exhibitions and get-togethers with friends. The big one was "Pop Art Portraits" at the National Portrait Gallery. Although it wasn't particularly large, it covered a good range of artists (including favourite Warhol), and also afforded a chance to see 2007's Photographic Portrait Prize. We also took in the Millais exhibition at Tate Britain. Although I tend to write-off artists from his era as typically "chocolate-boxy", this was really enjoyable. Finished the day off with dinner with C's friend A, and with Dr. M. Good to see both as ever. I've promised to do more evening trips up to London to see Dr. M - they're always a lot of fun, but I so rarely make the effort. I'd make it a "New Year's Resolution" if I weren't so likely to break it.

Christmas was also preceded by the so-called "Biomodellers Lunch" ...
... which went pretty well again. Better, I'd say, than last year's. This time round we managed to persuade more of the attendees to visiting drinking establishments post-meal. Then again, this time round we stacked the deck with "biomodellers and friends" who were much easier to persuade.

Christmas was the traditional jet-ride home to Scotland. Begun, this time, with a non-traditional rental car puncture just outside Perth (which, annoyingly, I'm going to have to pay for). Anyway, got to see my parents, brothers and friends as per usual. Managed to squeeze a hike in with G ...
... and finally met brother S's new girlfriend. The latter experience is now somewhat less clear on account of alcohol consumption. Also caught up with the various offspring of my friends. Everything seems to be going in the right direction there - not least in the toilet-training department (after 2006's debacle). G's daughter has come on hugely since my last visit - I was particularly impressed with her training in politeness. Spectacular for one only 18 months old.

New Year (back down south) afforded an evening with A, J and my god-daughter. It was nice, though things will be better once said god-daughter's a bit more settled. Only rarely did we get A and J at the same time.