Monday, 29 October 2012

A child's-eye view of apocalypse

It's safe to say that Beasts of the Southern Wild is a pretty unique film - at the very least in terms of what usually appears in cinemas our way. It's part family drama, part climate change fable and part meditation on community. But its principle strength is viewing all these various facets from the imaginatively-skewed perspective of a child living through them. The child, Hushpuppy, has an amphibious and anarchic childhood in the "Bathtub", an inundated area of swampland at the very edge of (a generally unseen) civilisation. Already largely underwater - hence its name - periodic storms threaten to finish the job, and Hushpuppy's tumultuous, knockabout life with her father is further imperilled by him gradually succumbing to illness. But in Hushpuppy's mind, her world is also threatened by the mysterious, ice-age aurochs that she's heard about at school, and infused with the mystery of her long-departed mother.

The film reviewer's shorthand for a film like this is probably something like "lyrical", but "magical" seems a popular one-word summary judging from the reviews (and posters; see above!) that I've come across. And they're right. It's a thoroughly enjoyable and affecting tale made wholly memorable by the performances of both central actors, particularly the child playing Hushpuppy. She's simply fantastic. And it does a brilliant job of playing the adult world's trouble and strife as the backdrop to the child's world of exploration and imagination. One touch I particularly liked was that the aurochs, though actually wild cattle in reality (now sadly extinct), are imagined by Hushpuppy (and visualised in the film) as something more akin to giant-sized boars because of her family's "pet" boar.

And, of course, any film that attempts to dramatise climate change - especially in a non-preachy way that's doesn't frighten the horses - gets the big thumbs up from me. Yes, it's too soft on the Bathtub's benign anarchy, and a little hard on the heavy-handed efforts of the authorities to help its residents, but it's a pretty honest and fresh presentation of a not unlikely future. A future that, as Hurricane Sandy bears down on the Eastern Seaboard, doesn't seem quite as far off anymore.

Grade: A- (high +2 on the Leeper Scale)

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Loss of loss

As was implied by yesterday's rather short review, and doubtless confirmed by this similarly short one, my pile of books that have been read but not cogitated has grown again. Olympics, holidays, but mostly laziness can be drafted in to serve as excuses, but the bedside table needs to have space for my glasses, so here I am again. Today's hasty summary is for Kate Atkinson's 2006 crime novel One Good Turn, a sequel to her earlier career-direction-change novel, Case Histories (which I was a big fan of).

As with its predecessor, this novel is centred around the character of ex-army sergeant, ex-police officer Jackson Brodie, now also adding ex-private detective to his growing c.v. Finding himself in Edinburgh during the Fringe on account of his girlfriend's sporadic acting career, it isn't long before trouble - of the criminal variety - finds Jackson. When he intervenes in a seeming road rage incident (one good turn ...), it's not long before he's drawn into a chain reaction of murkily-connected events. His fellow passengers include Martin Canning, a successful but troubled crime writer; Gloria Hatter, the millionaire wife of a crooked property developer; and Louise Monroe, a local detective sergeant who finds herself bumping into Brodie suspiciously frequently. Plus an entourage that includes a violent fixer, a pair of seeming Russian twins, and a mild-mannered man who has a military-issue gun for some reason.

The funny thing about this novel is that is has almost everything that made its precursor such a memorable book. Funnier (not "ha ha") is that though it's missing what I think elevated Case Histories above its genre trappings, namely its deep consideration of the human cost of loss, it still works perfectly well, and is still a very enjoyable and satisfying read. This omission certainly makes it a far less complete novel, indeed it makes it difficult to separate this novel from the crowded background of other crime tomes, but I was still almost wholly pleased with my time spent with the wry Mr. Brodie. Atkinson has made one thematic addition that somewhat raises One Good Turn from much of the genre, namely some very clever self-awareness about the crime genre, worked in via the successful but hollow writer, Martin. However, I'd still rather have had deeper themes to ponder (though I am a sucker for such post-modernism).

Still, notwithstanding the foregoing, I will definitely be returning to Ms. Atkinson in the near future. Even shorn of her literary sensibilities, she's still eminently worth reading.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Rocket to unreadability

Greg Egan is a pretty singular writer. Not content with imagining the outlines of his baroque science fiction worlds, he often delves deep into the details of the physics that underlie them. Sometimes this works out, but usually it winds up for me with a novel that I skip sections of. Surprisingly, even those novels where I've skipped the odd bit sometimes work out pretty well - Schild's Ladder and Quarantine, for instance, are both excellent in spite of skim-reading. They succeed, largely, because Egan balances his interest in micromanaging physics with ideas, plots and characters that are up the job of supporting this. Unfortunately, The Clockwork Rocket is not one of these novels.

To be fair, Egan does imbue this novel with some pretty interesting physics - a universe in which it's possible to move in space while staying stationary in time - and he does an impressive job of following through on the implications of this. But he bolts all of this onto a plot that's simply far too flimsy to make up for his patience-stretching digressions into alternative physics. On paper, if you'll pardon the expression, it should work, since he follows his physics through to the implications it has for the biology of his aliens. But his aliens, despite their physical differences and outlandishly tragic lifecycle, are disappointingly human in almost every other respect. And boring humans at that too. Sure, they're enmeshed in both a cultural revolution and a scientific one, but somehow this fails to translate to anything engaging. And, most disappointingly, this appears to be just the first book in a planned trilogy - sequels are not part of Egan's main sequence, so building on a failed novel seems particularly ill-judged.

What's also infuriating is that Egan's last novel, Zendegi, was such a triumph. Set in a near-future Iran with both a strong human story and great science fiction ideas, I thought it might see him beginning to attract a - long-overdue - wider audience. But The Clockwork Rocket is liable to set back his cause - subtitled ORTHOGONAL Book 1, it seems likely to, at best, set his popularity on a path orthogonal to that following Zendegi.