29 September 2012

Looper - Doomed To Repeat

This is also available at Beware The Spaceman.

Film noir is a much abused genre. The concept describes a series of tricks and techniques used to elevate the transition of hard-boiled crime stories from the inter war period of the 20th Century. Noir arose from a tension at that time between market demands and moral zeitgeist. People had an appetite for fiction about the excitement of the criminal underworld but moral propriety laid out a strict definition regarding the kinds of things that could occur in the stories.

Hardboiled fiction, in its original form, was a method of compromise, the characters readers wanted were present, but the consequences of their life choices were always harsh. It was impossible for bad people to truly succeed in the moralistic world of hardboiled fiction. To even out the odds authors often cynically put the point across that success was impossible for just about anyone and all apparent success was just a moment of transitory relief before pain, suffering and death weilded their inevitable grasp.

As this world view contains a grain of truth it is hard to escape, merely making life difficult for protagonists became a method of suggesting gritty reality without a story having to be all that realistic. In crime movies this can work, movies that feature precisely zero likeable characters who all suffer horribly have found an audience. The problems start to creep in when you mix elements of speculative fiction with the hardboiled world view.

Enter Looper.

Looper comes from director Rian Johnson, whom I think it's fair to say is a fan of the noir genre. His debut, Brick, was a twist on noir homages blending the hardboiled detective story with a teen movie. Brick also provided work for Joseph Gordon Levitt, an actor fast becoming one of the most important of this generation.

For director and star alike Looper provides the possibility of a big break. A high concept SF action thriller is the kind of vehicle that makes a star's name. It has also been known to elevate directors to unheard of heights of stardom. Both Levitt's performance and Johnson's direction are solid to say the very least.

Levitt's affectation of some Bruce Willis tics is confident and adds a vital layer of believability to the conceit that they are both the same man adrift in time by three decades. Johnson also does a neat trick in setting Looper in Kansas, where the hick town of tomorrow looks like the big city of today. It's a little like Inception and a little like Minority Report and, crucially, not much like Blade Runner except in a kind of "Hey! Look! I'm not trying to be Blade Runner!" kind of a way. The worst that could be said on that score is that Johnson pushes it a little too far the other way, making the Orient of the future infected with a kind of minimalist Westernism in an almost direct reversal of the Blade Runner aesthetic.

The supporting cast also turn in some fine moments. There's not one cast member who doesn't contribute some character moment that helps build the world and deepen the view we get of it. Jeff Daniels makes an excellently rumpled mob boss, developing the plot point that almost all of the mobsters he's supposed to be running are dangerously flaky when it comes to their performance on the job.

For the first forty minutes or so Johnson takes his time building the world of the loopers, a bunch of feckless, directionless psychopaths, killing people who don't exist yet in exchange for the transitory life style of sex, drugs and jazzy retro electronica (film noir, remember, no long haired hippie noise here). Levitt's character, Joe, does his looping in a corn field (appropriate for Kansas) and it is this that leads to the deeper dramatic revelations when he meets Sara, played by Emily Blunt.

Blunt is every bit as good as all the other cast members. However, it is in the introduction of this second plot layer that the wheels start to come off Looper. At the outset Looper is a story of the dealings of mobsters, making a comment on the consequences of such a lifestyle choice. In the second half the story takes a turn as Levitt stumbles onto Blunt's farm, from the first moment it is clear that the relationship between the two characters is going to get very messy.

If Looper had used the relationship between Levitt and Blunt as a foundation, so that the mystery of Levitt's past and future unfolded around that core, things might have been different. If Blunt's storyline had been cut, leaving the brutal and bloody Looper war front and centre the story stood a chance of working.

It's with these two strands jostling for attention that the story's flaws and contradictions start to weigh. All that's worst in film is here. Clumsy signposting, idea fatigue, plot bloat all of the sins of self-indulgence and ill-discipline rear their heads.

Looper clocks in at a fairly hefty 118 minutes. As with airport fiction, quantity is no indication of quality. In fact, the discipline to tell the important story would have trimmed the running time and probably hoovered up the multiple problems with the set up from the get go.

In order to remain spoiler free I can't enumerate and discuss any of the problems but anyone who's read around The Terminator and Terminator 2 will be well aware that no system of time travel is without logical flaws. There has come a tradition that discussing logical flaws in the mechanics of paradox is ungentlemanly and, indeed, I give Looper all the licence I can for the amusing parts of its set up.

Where I drew the line is at the point where statements are made and the consequences are not understood or explained adequately enough for anyone to understand them. At one point Jeff Daniels throws away a comment to the effect that killing someone today whom you know (because of time travel technology) to be alive in the future causes too much stress on the timeline to be a possible course for conflict resolution. This plot rule lasts as long as is convenient and then is merrily forgotten later on when it no longer serves a purpose.

This is the kind of sin in storytelling that puts Looper beyond my capacity to give it a break. Many parallels are going to be drawn between this and Inception, some have even gone so far as to compare Looper to the Matrix. The comparisons weaken Looper for it is neither as neatly tied togther as Inception, nor so grandly (but foolishly) ambitious as The Matrix Trilogy.

In fact Looper combines the worst elements of both these movies being sloppily constructed on the one hand but not grasping far enough to cause your head to ache with anything more than irritation. There are many many worthwhile things about Looper and I was rooting for it to be a surprise gem because no one wants to come out of the cinema feeling weary and disappointed. That's exactly how I felt upon leaving Looper. As its ponderous pulp indulgence loops in my brain the cycle is not broken.

24 September 2012

Morning Off

Well, day off but this afternoon I must do chores. As you can see from the left bar the first volume of Chicago Shadows is in beta. Three of my seven lovely beta readers have received their copies. I am expecting to get the other four out by tea time tomorrow. Right now, however, I'm going to play computer games and possibly eat some toast. (Not necessarily in that order, now, where's the Marmite?)

20 September 2012

Beyond The Fringe

My latest effort for Beware The Spaceman is up. If you're going to take a look be advised that it contains some spoilers for those not up to date with their Fringe watching activities.

Getting Things Done

The last couple of days have been particularly productive. CS1: The Silent Majority has come out of editing and is awaiting my typographical and artistic skills to put together a beta package for my ever-so-kind beta readers.

I was expecting to take a break from editing to iron out a few bugs and add a couple of features in Manuscript. In the end this work took me a total of about an hour and ten minutes, so CS2: Pleasant Rest has been loaded up and is now under the microscope. This also means that Manuscript is ready for alpha testing with my faithful alpha tester AKA my mum.

I wrote the first draft of CS1 in 2010 during the annual nano bunfight. The first draft of CS2 came this year. I've completed a lot of writing in the meanwhile. Some of it is invisible in a fiction sense because it was RP manuals but all of it counts. I'm exactly as bad with my over use of the qualifier "just" when in full flow but otherwise the shape of the language in CS2 is way ahead of CS1.

That's not at all to say that I'm ploughing through at high speed, there are still many gotchas to be identified and corrected. However, I am not finding the same repetitive rhythm that I was shocked to discover in CS1. It could also be the difference between punting out something for Nano and being allowed to get through at my own rate. Even so, I've managed circa 130,000 words of fiction this year so far. Not a bad amount with a day job vying for my attention.

I'm off to indulge my new C&C Alliances habit, cook a spaghetti bolognese, eat it with the Mrs and hopefully unwind. Hopefully I'll be able to link through to my latest BTS article soon, watch this space.

16 September 2012

Review: Undersea

The e-Book: Undersea by Geoffrey Morrison

Price: £1.53

Review Category: Bought after sidebar  entreaty in Facebook

The Blurb: In a world flooded and irradiated by a nearly forgotten cataclysm generations passed, all that remains of civilization clings to life in two war-torn, city-sized submarines. For fifty years, the only peace between them has come from separation.

Now, young councilwoman Ralla Gattley has uncovered mysteries that will bring these two factions face-to-face, setting in motion events that will forever change their undersea world. Along the way she meets Thom Vargas, a bored fisherman and aspiring drunk who merely wants to climb one rung on the social ladder. Little does he know that single step may well put the fate of the world in his hands.

Preview Available: An Amazon Look Inside thingie

Would I buy this (again)? : Probably

The Product: A well formatted unfussy e-book with a nice cover that only tangentially reflects the contents.

The Nitty Gritty: I finished reading Undersea nearly a week ago now and the more and more I turn it over in my head the more I can trace the book's issues come back to just one decision.

More on that later, because issues there are, but it would be grossly unfair to say that there was nothing to love in Undersea. As the blurb informs us the subject matter of Undersea concerns itself with a particular furrow of SF that doesn't get ploughed all that often. It's a watery space opera, no stars in the sky but plenty of decompression chambers beneath the waves.

This was a smart move in many ways. Undersea cannot suffer by comparison as nobody's yet produced the definitive oceanic colony novel (AFAIK). By the same token this is most certainly not the definitive oceanic colony novel, although it has many of the right ingedients. This is a slice of action thriller with some technological stuff and a moist post-apocalyptic scenario.

As such the piece is not 'idea driven' so much as 'based on an idea'. The drive has to come from the characters. The main pair, Ralla Gattley and Thom Vargas are personable enough, although I wouldn't go quite so far as to say rich, deep or well-rounded. We get to know Ralla quite well during the book, meeting both her parents and her fiance. We also get to see her wield the weapons of war and resist the efforts of their enemies to break her will.

Thom Vargas we see less of. We meet some friends of his, we learn he likes a drink, we learn that when he's not soused he can rouse himself to lead a team of sub-oceanic ninja fishermen on rescue missions.

Before we go any further I would like to make it quite plain that I enjoyed Undersea. The point of discussion here is 'is it worth £1.53 if you are intrigued by the premise'? The answer to that question is undoubtably yes. It delivers enough action, enough character and enough techno stuff to keep you going until the end.

Would I recommend it even to people who are not that bothered? That's where my endorsement ends.

I think it might be time to mention that key issue, and go from there. At one point during my read a character's name was spelled 'Mrakas'. I assumed that it was a slip of the finger and that next time the character would be correctly rendered 'Markas'. The character then continued to be called Mrakas every time he was invoked all the way to the end of the book.

Point one, the book has been somewhat shoddily proofed to the point where meeting a man called Mrakas I thought it had to be a typographical goof. The volume is rife with many of the more pernicious typos where a homonym substitutes for its more appropriate sibling, something I just can't bare (joke). There are also many places where a good editor would have spotted uses of the wrong word, nothing as bad as playing it fast and lose or loosing all patience but certainly more creative uses of that particular boob. I didn't mind, I just re-edited for sense in my own image as I went along. Less arrogant more pedantic readers will definitely find this a chore.

Point two, no doubt the character was called Mrakas because the author felt it added a little something. It did: unpronounceability. When faced with the choice of rounding out a character or giving him a silly name the journeyman author should learn to engage with a solid work ethic.

The character is not a child, giving them a silly name will not force them to make themselves more interesting to make up for their nomenclature. Until the book is out there mean kids like me cannot whale on him for having a silly name. Now that I am giving him a going over I bet there are many things Mrakas wishes he could do to make himself more interesting and rise above this unfortunate shortfall in the process of his creation, but he can't. The story is told and he is left only regrets and a tortured alphabet salad to enter into the forename box on his insurance claims.

This kind of laziness infects all the characters. If the author could be thought entirely incompetent then I might be more forgiving but Morrison demonstrates some raw talent. The setting is important, only someone with potential as a storyteller could really latch on to the hook presented by the danger and oppression of a human life forcibly pushed into less than ideal circumstances into undersea habitats.

The poetry of two communities, the heroes on board the citysub Universalis, the oppositions on board the citysub Population, living in hastily assembled gigantic submarines manages to outstrip the question of how they haven't managed any R&D on their living spaces in the three or four generations that they've been tooling about under the sea. (This latter problem is even poked hard enough to make it a sore point when you are told that they had the time to develop deep sea mining colony domes, research stations and whizzy shards of body armour but no new development in the mobile capital city of humanity.)

In addition there is a heartwarming thread of utopian philosophy embodied in the political stance of Ralla Gattley. Morrison has a way of communicating how people act in mobs comes to life in a way I've not seen before. The politics of the masses and the manipulation of leadership communication are used to make plot points in a way that seems believable and contrasts with how such devices are usually overplayed. At one moment an attempt at undermining a character's leadership credentials backfires (which such moves don't tend to) and the description of the fallout from this ham-fisted attempt really gives the drama some muscle.

Gattley is idealistic enough to be endearing but realistic in her outlook enough not to be naive, a hard balancing act, to be sure. A key part of this balance can be attributed to the villain, the opposing citysub's lead politician: Governor Oppai,  who is a splendidly weird creation.

I'm not entirely sure whether Oppai's distinctive character is a design or an accident. It is certainly possible that Morrison made the whole plot and supplied notes for "Villain 1 acts this way" before writing. When he came to write the novel he tried to fit Oppai's personality to the actions he was required to take.

Regardless, Oppai's characterisation does work, it shouldn't, but it does. Oppai is, simultaneously, a charismatic statesman and a paranoid lunatic. This sounds like something it would be fairly easy to pull off but his brand of charisma is very much of the contemporary age. Oppai makes statements about being "in it together" with the people on board the citysub Population whilst, at the same time, enticing them into his dangerous fantasy through a web of deceit; an exemplar of fascism through lies, appealing to the worst in human nature.

Oppai is brilliantly manipulative and eminently despisable. Making him Ralla Gattley's main adversary boosts the protagonist's character. Oppai is pretty much as two dimensional as all the other main characters but in a pantomime villain this is excusable.

To be fair I didn't have high standards for the main protagonists. 2.5 dimensions will usually do a great job in a plot-driven action thriller and 3 whole dimensions can often make the meat too rich and too strange.

Given that the novel is supposed to be complete in itself the fact that all you know about the protagonists is that they are pacifists with guns who may or may not be in lurve is a shortcoming. It is one that could have been mitigated in two ways.

The first is that Undersea could have gone from one off to saga, over a longer period the gradual accumulation of character is easier to forgive and almost inevitable for the storyteller. The second would be to have more characters front and centre making the piece into an ensemble.

Following both of these suggestions to their natural conclusion it would appear that Undersea is not just a fine idea for an SF adventure but also a solid basis for a television series.

I couldn't shake the feeling that things would have turned out a little better if Undersea had been given some of the discipline applied to a television series. Among the likely improvements such a treatment would have furnished are: the major beats would have been slower, the enemy could have amounted to more than a single character, the ensemble would have helped build a richer world.

The end result may have come out like Waterworld meets (new) Battlestar Galactica but in genre terms that's got potential to be a winner.

As it is the product before us at once goes too fast and doesn't deliver quite enough story to raise it further than a solid "just above average". The good news is that there are free volumes out there with more editorial polish and less compelling action. The bad news is that there are free volumes out there with identical (or better) editorial standards that are more gripping. As these are the facts I cannot grip you firmly by the shoulders and direct you to read Undersea now, but neither am I going to warn you away. If you're looking for a cheap and cheerful slice of action adventure with a twist Undersea will certainly scratch that itch.

Free For All Invitations - The Stealthy Straw Man

Oh isn't it wonderful! Harper Voyager are accepting full manuscript unagented submissions for the first two weeks in October. They made the announcement in a press release on the 12th September. How amazing! That'll show the traditional publishing industry is ready to take risks and run the gauntlet! Yes, it will!


It won't.

Let me tell you what would be a risk. Innovation. I've seen this particular dog and pony show at least twice before and it's just a bunch of disingenuous rubbish or blatant incompetence on the part of the organising publishing house. Why? Simple. If you announce this with two weeks to spare before the actual event then you will not be receiving new material you will be receiving material people are already sitting on. Either material that is currently in need of a good polish (and four weeks to polish with the aid of my manuscript tool would be pushing it, without polishing properly it is a nearly impossible task) or material which the author considers to be 'good to go' already.

The massive problem with the latter category is that this material isn't already with an agent for one of three reasons, 1. has already been rejected by dozens of agents, 2. was just about to go to an agent but author saw press release and decided to skip the middle man 3. just isn't. Only manuscripts in category 2 or 3 stand a chance of actually being decent and then only the same chance as that submitted to an agent i.e. apparently not much.

So Harper Voyager are proposing to allow the filth gates to groan open for two weeks and then to send some lowly peons to scrub through the fetid literary detritus and report back if they find the Hope Diamond in amongst the slurry. The peons, of course, probably won't. Then Harper Voyager can say: "See, agents are the only way". Or, if the Hope Diamond appears they can say: "Great, a sucker to bilk on a publishing deal because they're not represented by an agent".

I have also seen a scheme run by another publishing house in which they turned the preparation of 30k of opening into a six month event and delivered a full, tight requirements list for the type of material they would consider. Now, that's a plan.

This, this is just a meaningless and mean-spirited publicity stunt engineered by people who are either cynical or ignorant and are probably both. To attempt to save everybody a little bit of time and trouble: if you have just finished and you have an agent in mind, submit to the agent, if you have been rejected a number of times already there is probably a reason why. This is just a cruel chimera and you should direct your energies elsewhere.

6 September 2012

Beware The Monkey

For even more Monkey I've started writing for pop culture site Beware The Spaceman. It's not a paid gig but the site has a much bigger reach than my little corner of the internets so I'm happy to get some face time up there. They're really enthusiastic and supportive so that's pretty cool.

My first piece for them is called "Real or Recall" and, in honour of the recent remake of Total Recall takes a retrospective of the relationship between Philip K Dick and the world of cinema. All the favourites are referenced: Blade Runner, Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau but I also detour into the lesser known adaptations like Screamers.

When I started looking at the article I didn't actually realise the number of SF cinema tropes that could be connected back to PKD. I mention a few of the films that show the clear influences but there are loads that I Just couldn't fit in but almost every SF film since Blade Runner shows at least some preoccupation with the themes that Dick liked to explore.

One of the big things that I made passing reference to was how similar the themes of Cronenberg's movies were, I'm not sure if that was conscious on Cronenberg's part or not. eXistenZ is the one that shows the clearest connections but the adaptation of Naked Lunch, Videodrome and even The Fly all share the same themes.

Interesting stuff, I think you'll agree.