Sunday 31 January 2010

Speculative Cinema in 2010: Part Four

Let Me In

Release Date: October 1st
Anticipation: 3 out of 10

Summary: A bullied young boy befriends a young female vampire who lives in secrecy with her guardian.

Commentary: From early reports, this is looking to live down to the usual Hollywood rule of bastardising brilliant foreign films with insipid remakes simply to make a buck from Joe "I Hate Subtitles" Bloggs. For my money, Joe can go to hell. Let the Right One In is a poignant, perfect adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel; Let Me In, meanwhile, is another opportunity for supposed child prodigy Kodi-Smitt McPhee to look miserable for 90 minutes, as he did as the boy in The Road. I can't really blame the American film industry for following their wallets and cashing in on what has become a global success story, though the least they could have done is hand the directorial reigns over to someone more suited to such a considered story - someone decidedly not Matt Reeves, whose only qualification of note is Cloverfield. Then again, I did like the creepy horses in the American Ringu equivalent. Will you give The Speculative Scotsman more creepy horses, Matt Reeves? No? Off with your head then.


Release Date: April 16th
Anticipation: 4 out of 10

Summary: After being betrayed by the organization who hired him, an ex-Federale launches a brutal rampage of revenge against his former boss.

Commentary: The tagline alone is a stroke of genius: "They fucked with the wrong Mexican." Still, though you'll see his name plastered all over the promotional material, co-director Robert Rodriguez has reportedly had little to do with Machete, a film conceived from one of four faux trailers for Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse, but don't count it out just yet. Machete could be fun - Lindsay Lohan aside, the cast (including Robert DeNiro) is surprisingly strong - though I fear stretching a one-trick pony from a tolerable 2 minutes to the standard length of a feature will only result in a gory mess of dead, stretched pony. With explosions! And knives! How could it possibly go wrong?

Mr Nobody

Release Date: TBD
Anticipation: 7 out of 10

Summary: In the year 2092, Mars is a vacation spot and Nemo Nobody is a 120-year-old man who is the last mortal left standing in a society where scientific advances have made humans last for longer than even Twinkies. When Nemo is on his deathbed, he reviews the three possible existences and marriages he might have experienced.

Commentary: In Mr Nobody, 30 Second to Mars lead vocalist Jared Leto makes his triumphant return to the cinema! Ah, relax; I'm only kidding. This film lensed in 2007 - Leto's still busy making subpar Linkin Park-inspired noise. Though the long delay between shooting and release has me worries, Mr Nobody looks right up my street: arthouse sci-fi from a Belgian director who hasn't made a film in 13 years. The premise is sound, early reviews from the festival circuit have been very positive, Jaco van Dormael hasn't yet made a bad film that I've seen - and I've seen several - and for all I relish berating the likes of Jared Leto, he really wasn't too awful for such an attractive young actor. Watch out for this one.

My Soul To Take

Release Date: TBD
Anticipation: 4 out of 10

Summary: A serial killer returns to his hometown to stalk seven children who share the same birthday as the date he was allegedly put to rest.

Commentary: Wes Craven returns to take a bite out of the movie-going public's reinvigorated appetite for teen horror a la Twilight. On top of the three titles My Soul to Take has gone through since its announcement, its delay from October of 2009 to some unspecified date this year screams of a studio trying to make the best out of a bad lot. Can you believe this man used to make decent films? On the plus side, this is the first film Craven has both written and directed since A New Nightmare, so there's a chance, however slim, that The Speculative Scotsman's negligible expectations might yet be pleasantly thwarted.

Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang

Release Date: March 26th (UK)
Anticipation: 6 out of 10

Summary: Nanny McPhee arrives to help a harried young mother who is trying to run the family farm while her husband is away at war, where she uses her magic to teach the woman's children and their spoiled cousins five new lessons.

Commentary: Breaking news! There will be no Professor Trelawney in either part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. British national treasure Emma Thompson opted out of the last entries in that franchise in favour of a sequel to the little-seen but apparently much-loved 2005 YA fantasy Nanny McPhee. She returns in the title role with a few Harry Potter regulars to wreak more magical havoc, this time on theories of evolution. I can't say this is must-see big screen material for me, but it's perfect fodder for the younguns or the adults whose kids demand a new Harry Potter every other week.

Never Let Me Go

Release Date: TBD
Anticipation: 9 out of 10

Summary: An alternate history story of a woman who, as she reflects on her private school years in the English countryside, reunites with her two friends to face the dark secrets tied to their communal past.

Commentary: Mark Romanek, director of the superlative One Hour Photo, helms this adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's startlingly original Booker-shortlisted novel from a screenplay by 28 Days Later and Sunshine scribe Alex Garland. Starring Keira Knightley, who demonstrated in Atonement that yes, she can act. I see no weak links in the cast and crew of Never Let Me Go. Thus: I am rather excited. The book has a special place in my heart, and it looks for all intents and purposes to be done justice with this version for the silver screen. In fact, given the caliber of the attached talent, I'll go all out and say this could even be a candidate for the Oscars come 2011.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Release Date: April 30th
Anticipation: 5 out of 10

Summary: A group of teenagers find their dreams haunted by a figure, a badly burned man with razor knives for fingers. His name is Freddy, and if he kills you in the dream then you die in real life.

Commentary: After remakes of Halloween, Friday the 13th and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it was only going to take so long before A Nightmare on Elm Street received the dubious honour of a retooling for contemporary audiences. And here it is. The first mark against this remake has to be Samuel Bayer in the director's chair; a man with no more experience of filmmaking than a few music videos. The next: John Connor from the short-lived Terminator TV series leading a cast of nameless nobodies whose only purpose, I presume, will be to die, very likely in a horrible fashion. Jackie Earle Haley is the only real plus, and from the sounds of a few set-reports, he didn't have a fine time underneath the spaghetti-face prosthetics Robert Englund wore so memorably. Expect an absolute disaster of a film that nevertheless wins the box office for a single weekend before word of mouth spoils its chances of a second.


Release Date: TBD
Anticipation: 8 out of 10

Summary: The story of an Irish fisherman who discovers a woman in his fishing net who he believes to be a mermaid.

Commentary: This exquisite-looking fable for all the family comes to us courtesy of the director of The Crying Game and Company of Wolves, and despite Neil Jordan's patchy track-record since, I'm psyched about Ondine just looking at that picture. (Not Keira Knightley, by the way.) A year ago you'd have had to convince me about Colin Farrell, but as a recent convert - the glorious In Bruges saw to that - there's nothing stopping me from falling for this very promising film now, and its ongoing tour of the festival circuit has only compounded my great expectations for Ondine. Expect something like The Lady in the Water, except good.


Release Date: TBD
Anticipation: 8 out of 10

Summary: Two British comic-book geeks traveling across the U.S. encounter an alien outside Area 51.

Commentary: Written by and starring Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz chums Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, with an impressive supporting cast including Sigourney Weaver, Seth Rogen and Jason Bateman, Paul is nevertheless lacking a single thing: Edgar Wright, who directed the hilarious British duo in the films that made their name. What Paul will be without Wright - who's keeping busy with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World - remains to be seen, but I'm optimistic. With comedy, the words on the page and the delivery are what count, and with Superbad director Greg Mottola on the case, there's really nothing to fear. Here's hoping Pegg and Frost can do for sci-fi what they did for horror with their fantastic British take on the inevitable zombie invasion a few years back. One to watch.

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief

Release Date: February 12th
Anticipation: 4 out of 10

Summary: A teenager discovers he's the descendant of a Greek god and sets out on an adventure to resolve an on-going battle between the gods.

Commentary: Hmm. Could that be... Harry... Potter? No? Well, off you go, then. Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief can certainly boast about Chris Columbus, director of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, but it's only encouraging what are sure to be unfavourable comparisons. For all J. K. Rowling's failings, her narratives had character, adventure and charm. This has Greek gods; better left to the likes of Clash of the Titans and God of War if you ask me. A derivative cash-in adaptation of a derivative cash-in book, I saw the trailer for Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief attached to Avatar and it certainly looked... derivative.


For fear of film coverage overwhelming all the talk of books, glorious books, I mean to spread the fifth and final parts of The Speculative Scotsman's exhaustive preview of genre film in 2010 throughout the first week of February.

I did warn you this was set to be an crowded year for SF&F at cinema... but rejoice, readers, we're well into the home stretch now!

For the moment: enjoy, discuss, and please, feel free to disagree. I am but a humble highlander, and I'd be interested to hear other perspectives on the landscape of speculative cinema stretching out before us.

Saturday 30 January 2010

Book Review: Finch by Jeff Vandermeer

[Buy this book from
Amazon in the US]

"Tasked with solving an impossible double murder, detective John Finch searches for the truth among the rubble of the once-mighty city of Ambergris. Under the rule of the mysterious gray caps, Ambergris is falling into anarchy. The remnants of a rebel force are demoralised and dispersed, their leader, the Lady in Blue, not seen for months. Partials - human traitors transformed by the gray caps - walk the streets brutalising the city's inhabitants. Finch's partner Wyte, stricken with a fungal disease, is literally disintegrating. And strange forces are marshaling themselves against detective Finch even as he pursues his one clue: the elusive spymaster Ethan Bliss. How much time does Finch have before time itself runs out?"


The first thing about Finch that will strike you - the first touch of the blackness ahead that will leave you staggered - is the heartbreakingly beautiful cover art by John Coulthart. At once spectacular and grimy, stark and yet colourful, his startling composition perfectly captures the contrasting aspects of the city of Ambergris a century after the events of Shriek: An Afterword. And Coulthart's incredible illustration is but the first thing to take your breath away; far, far from the last.

Six years before the events chronicled in Finch, the gray caps swallowed an Ambergris already decimated by decades of petty civil strife. With the city weakened and its people hopelessly divided, the mushroom monstrosities that had colonised the cave systems beneath the great hallucinatory state rose up to rule over the citizens. Now, those who survived through the unspeakable horrors of The Rising live in a state of perpetual paranoia: there is something for them to fear around every corner, some terrible consequence of the fungal invasion on every street, every building, every person.

Ambergris has become a vibrant city of red, green and gold; purplish hues and dirty spatters of all the lurid shades of an artist's palette have infiltrated its every aspect in spore form. Certainly it is a more colourful locale than one might recall from City of Saints and Madmen, but for all that the urban landscape has been enlivened as a perverse by-product of the grey cap's attack, The Rising has also leeched the life from the once bustling metropolis of Ambergris. The ruined city detectives Finch and Wyte once swore to protect no longer takes much notice of a missing person, another moldering body. There is little in the way of law left for them to uphold, and no order but that which the grey caps impose for their own ominous purpose.

Finch has as its primary narrative thrust the titular detective's investigation into two dead bodies in a seedy apartment: a man and half of a dismembered mushroom who have looked mortality in the eye and found themselves unequal to its awful answer. It's not long, however, before Finch finds out that there is a much greater mystery afoot, and his subsequent discoveries soon come to threaten everything he holds dear. His lover and his life, his friends and his family are all at stake; and of course, his city, Ambergris entire.

As per usual, World Fantasy Award-winner Jeff Vandermeer spins a terrific yarn. There's a sense of inevitability to everything Finch sees, says and does, an inexorable forward motion that sustains the narrative all the way through to its brilliant cosmic climax. Few characters beyond the protagonist and his increasingly fungal father-figure Wyte are explored to any great extent, but many of those who appear only occasionally are able nevertheless to haunt the text in an extraordinary sense. Rathven, the enigmatic photographer, Heretic and one particularly sickening partial often lurk between the lines - even in their absence.

Singularly the most memorable character of Finch, however, is Ambergris itself. While I found the city struggling to establish a clear identity in Vandermeer's previous fiction, it is much changed in Finch, and the change has rendered it a spectacular marvel of wonder and horror.

Some readers will be disoriented by Vandermeer's sparse, clipped prose, but once they're able to acclimatise to its unusual, article-less rhythm and flow, Finch becomes an unforgettable experience akin to a darkly lucid dream. As one abrupt sentence follows another you come to realise that the curious, not quite stream-of-consciousness narration represents the disconnection between detective Finch and his city, the hard line he has drawn between his past and the terrible reality of the present. Furthermore, it emphasizes the isolation of Ambergris itself from the world surrounding it.

Vandermeer's distinctive storytelling device will surely discourage many attempts to summit the great narrative heights Finch eventually scales, but this is a novel made greater by the effort you must expend to fully appreciate it. It is assuredly the best of the three tales of Ambergris Vandermeer has told to date - high praise in itself - and despite a few unfortunate call-backs to the events of Shriek: An Afterword, this twisting hallucinatory fusion of tropes and traits stands well enough on its own that readers interested in any species of great genre fiction will find much about Finch to love.


by Jeff Vandermeer
November 2009, Underland Press: Oregon.

[Buy this book from
Amazon in the US]

Recommended and Related Reading


Friday 29 January 2010

The BoSS for 29/01/10

Welcome, everyone, to the first proper installment of the Bag o' Speculative Swag, wherein one humble blogger takes account of the various proofs and review copies that have narrowly escaped the clutches of a particularly savage postman throughout the month of January, may it rest in peace.

But I burbled enough in Meet the BoSS earlier today. Without further ado, let's get this show on the road.


by Joe Hill

Release Details:
To be published in the UK on
18/03/10 by Gollancz

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "Ignatius Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke up the next morning with one hell of a hangover, a raging headache... and a pair of horns growing from his temples.

"Once, Ig lived the life of the blessed: born into privilege, the second son of a renowned American musician, and the younger brother of a rising late-night TV star, Ig had security and wealth and a place in his community. Ig had it all, and more - he had the love of Merrin Williams, a love founded on shared daydreams, mutual daring, and unlikely midsummer magic. Then beautiful, vivacious Merrin was gone - raped and murdered, under inexplicable circumstances - with Ig the only suspect. He was never tried for the crime, but in the court of public opinion, Ig was and always would be guilty.

"Now Ig is possessed with a terrible new power to go with his terrible new look, and he means to use it to find the man who killed Merrin and destroyed his life. Being good and praying for the best got him nowhere.

"It's time for a little revenge; it's time the devil had his due."

Commentary: I know some readers found fault with Joe Hill's debut, Heart-Shaped Box, but I went in expecting very little and came out thinking I'd read one the best, most modern horror novels in years, and the short stories collected in 20th Century Ghosts didn't diminish my opinion of Hill at all. Really looking forward to this one. The premise sounds like wicked fun. Expect a full review just as soon as I've finished with the monstrous-long Tome of the Undergates.

by Jeff Vandermeer

Release Details:
Published in the US on
03/11/09 by Underland Press

Review Priority:
5 (Immediate)

Plot Synopsis: "VanderMeer's third book set in the fungus-laden city of Ambergris is an engrossing recasting of the hard-boiled detective novel. Traditional tropes - femmes fatales, double-crossing agents, underworld crime lords - mix seamlessly with a world in which humans struggle to undermine the authority of sentient fungi a century after the events of Shriek: An Afterword. By the time the titular detective solves the double murder of a human and a fungus, he's been drawn into a conflict in which he can't be sure who is manipulating him nor why he's so important to their plans."

Commentary: Stayed up through the wee hours last night and into the morning proper to finish this one, and the end didn't disappoint. Let me paraphrase a tweet composed in the immediate aftermath of that sublime reading experience: Finch is a grimy, noirish pseudo-sequel to Vandermeer's Shriek: An Afterword about a conflicted detective gone to war against mushroom people with fungus guns. Great book, if rather difficult reading to begin with. Coverage of this one is very much in the pipeline.

Tome of the Undergates
by Sam Sykes

Release Details:
To be published in the UK on
18/02/10 by Gollancz

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "Lenk can barely keep control of his mismatched adventurer band at the best of times: Gariath the dragon man sees humans as little more than prey, Kataria the shict despises most humans and the humans in the band are little better. When they're not insulting each other's religions, they're arguing about pay and conditions, so when the ship the gang are travelling on is attacked by pirates, things don't go well. They go a whole lot worse when an invincible demon joins the fray.

"The demon steals the fabled Tome of the Undergates - a manuscript containing all a body would need to open the undergates. And whichever god you believe in, you don't want the undergates open. On the other side are an array of additional, equally impervious demons; the manifestation of all the evil of the gods. And the Gods, well... they want out."

Commentary: You haven't seen fast-paced until you've read Tome of the Undergates. Breakneck, bawdy, balls-out fantasy fun from foul-mouthed debut author Sam Sykes. It's a big 'un, but not too dense; I'm powering through it and having a fine time too. I'll publish a review when I'm done, probably a week from now, and if you're very, very lucky, readers, The Speculative Scotsman could well play host to an interview with the man himself in the near future. Not that I've asked him yet. How about it, Sam?

by Scott Westerfeld

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
01/10/09 by Simon & Schuster

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "The year is 1914 and Europe, armed with futuristic machines and biotechnology, is on the precipice of war. Prince Aleksandar is fleeing for his life, having discovered that his parents have been assassinated and that he is now a target for the Clanker Powers, a group determined to take over the globe with their mechanical machinery.

"The Clanker Powers will stop at nothing to get what they want, so Alek knows his only choice is to keep on running. When he meets Deryn Sharpe, an orphan girl who has disguised herself as a boy so she can to join the British Air Service, they form an uneasy, but necessary, alliance. But the pair will soon discover that their emerging friendship will dramatically change their lives and the entire course of the Great World War..."

Commentary: I had fun with Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, the first steampunk I'd read in some time, but what with all the hype behind it, the actual article left me a little cold. With Westerfeld here writing for the YA market, which for once I think could be a plus, I've higher hopes for Leviathan. Alternate history escapades await. And I've rather fallen for that gorgeous cover.

A Matter of Blood:
The Dog-Faced Gods Trilogy
by Sarah Pinborough

Release Details:
To be published in the UK on
25/03/10 by Gollancz

Review Priority:
2 (Fair)

Plot Synopsis: "The recession that grips the world has left it exhausted. Crime is rising in every major city. Financial institutions across the world have collapsed, and most governments are now in debt to The Bank, a company created by the world's wealthiest men. But Detective Inspector Cass Jones has enough on his plate without worrying about the world at large. His marriage is crumbling, he's haunted by the deeds of his past, and he's got the high-profile shooting of two schoolboys to solve - not to mention tracking down a serial killer who calls himself the Man of Flies.

"Then Cass Jones' personal world is thrown into disarray when his brother shoots his own wife and child before committing suicide - leaving Cass implicated in their deaths. And when he starts seeing silent visions of his dead brother, it's time for the suspended DI to go on the hunt himself - only to discover that all three cases are linked . . . As Jones is forced to examine his own family history, three questions keep reappearing: what disturbed his brother so badly in his final few weeks? Who are the shadowy people behind The Bank? And, most importantly, what do they want with DI Cass Jones?"

Commentary: Not at all sure what to make of this one. I'm not above a little crime fiction from time to time - on holiday in Croatia last year I devoured Steig Larsson's Millennium trilogy almost despite myself, and I've had a great deal of fun with the two Tana French novels published to date - but that said, there's apparently more to this one than meets the eye. I'm told it's Ian Rankin meets Clive Barker, and that, well, that sounds very fine. We shall see. You can, at the very least, expect a Quick Book of A Matter of Blood: The Dog-Faced Gods once I've overcome the ARCs with more immediate release dates.


Click through to read Meet the BoSS for an explanation of why you should care about the Bag o' Speculative Swag.

Meet the BoSS (Being an Explanation of the Bag o' Speculative Swag)

To my continuing amazement and bemusement, The Speculative Scotsman seems to be picking up new readers with every passing day, but let us not forget the sage advice of someone's dead uncle: with great power comes great responsibility. And so it goes. In this case, however, it's probably safe to substitute the "responsibility" part for "perks".

I mean ARCs, of course. Galleys, proofs, review copies, whatever you prefer to call them. Much as readers continue to wend their way to this humble blog, so too do publishers; publishers based here in the UK and indeed, from further afield.

Now, as I said in the blogosphere round-up a few days ago, I'm a firm believer in the points raised by Book of All Hours author Hal Duncan in his involved "Ethics and Enthusiasm" blog post. Do pop on over to Notes From the Geek Show to read that BSFA award-nominated essay addressing the concerns faced by both the reviewers who make their hearth and home here, on the internet, and the people who rely on those very reviewers for what purports to be objective criticism.

Let me be clear: much as I appreciate your appreciation, dear readers, the Bag o' Speculative Swag is not for you. This is neither a contest, nor a giveaway. There may come a point when TSS lords over such a thing - I certainly wouldn't rule it out of the picture - but for the moment, let me formally introduce you to the BoSS, as I like to call it; a feature that will present itself here on the blog as and when its services are required.

Each BoSS post will consist of a picture, a brief description and/or plot synopsis, publication details and a few of my thoughts on the received books in question. Please understand, these posts are not intended to be boasts - I urge you not to perceive them as such. Rather, the BoSS will stand both as a preview of things to come on the blog and as a quick, painless, even entertaining way to do right by the publishers and publicity reps who kindly send such books for The Speculative Scotsman's consideration.

Not everything featured in the BoSS posts you'll see on the site from time to time will be reviewed, although at this early stage in the development of TSS, the vast majority will see some sort of further coverage, even if we're just talking about a Quick Book to explain that something hasn't been to my tastes. Of course, I reserve the right to change this policy as and when I deem it necessary; depending on how many ARCs come through the door, there could come a point when I simply don't have the time to write something about everything. But we're not there yet.

Right then. For the moment, that's about all the explaining there is to do. Look out for the first proper BoSS later today, featuring Finch by Jeff Vandermeer, Sam Sykes' Tome of the Undergates and Horns by Joe Hill, among others. Well, two others.

Until then: ladies, gentlemen, one and all. A good day to you!

Thursday 28 January 2010

Speculative Cinema in 2010: Part Three


Release Date: TBD
Anticipation: 7 out of 10

Summary: Jamie Morgan's life has always been blighted by the large, heart-shaped birthmark on his face. He lives in an urban world dominated by a terrifying gang culture, where random violence has convinced him that the world is meaningless and ugly - but then Jamie meets someone who tells him the truth, and the world reveals itself as a thing of great beauty. That's when his real nightmare starts.

Commentary: The writer of British gangster thriller The Krays takes a turn in the director's chair for a quiet, clever festival favourite featuring rising star Jim Sturgess in the lead role that stands to do for demons what Let The Right One In did for vampires. Heartless doesn't look like much from the outside, and there's not a lot of buzz behind it outside of film critics dabbling in art-appreciation, but this is nonetheless one of the more exciting 2010 movies that most people haven't heard of.


Release Date: July 16th
Anticipation: 10 out of 10

Summary: In a world where entering dreams is possible, a single idea from the human mind can be the most dangerous weapon or the most valuable asset.

Commentary: If it weren't for the alphabetical order this extensive article has followed thus far, I'd hold off talking about Inception till the very end to ratchet up the tension, but alas. Despite the rarity of available information, this is without a doubt my most anticipated film of the year ahead. Christopher Nolan has been among my favourite directors since Memento, and he's surpassed his own incredible achievements with each successive feature. The publicity will no doubt make a great song and dance about Inception being the next film from the director of The Dark Knight, but I'd warn fervent Batfans to expect something tonally more similar to The Prestige; a labyrinthine narrative, brilliant cinematography, special effects that stand a chance of exploding your head and a plot that'll have you thinking yourself in circles for weeks afterward. Can't. Effing. Wait.


Release Date: TBD
Anticipation: 5 out of 10

Summary: It is the year 1215 and the rebel barons of England have forced their despised King John to put his royal seal to the Magna Carta, a noble, seminal document that upheld the rights of free-men. Yet within months of pledging himself to the great charter, the King reneged on his word and assembled a mercenary army on the south coast of England with the intention of bringing the barons and the country back under his tyrannical rule.

Commentary: Hottie Kate Mara leads a very strong cast of British thesps under the director of Johnathan English who... I'll confess, I've never heard of. Nonetheless, there are only two reasons the likes of Brian Cox, Richard Attenborough and James Purefoy would sign up for a project such as this. The first is money. Let's cross our fingers and hope the truth lies somewhere closer to the second such explanation: a brilliant script.

Iron Man 2

Release Date: April 30th (UK)
Anticipation: 7 out of 10

Summary: With the world now aware of his dual life as the armored superhero Iron Man, billionaire inventor Tony Stark faces pressure from the government, the press, and the public to share his technology with the military. Unwilling to give up his creations, Stark, along with Pepper Potts and "Rhodey" Rhodes, must forge alliances and confront powerful new enemies.

Commentary: Probably the surest bet of the year in terms of box-office, Iron Man 2 will nevertheless have a hard time topping the first film, which, speaking for myself, won me over mostly by catching me so off-guard. Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell are onboard as the villains of the piece, great choices both, and after his brilliant performance in Sherlock Holmes I've finally forgiven Robert Downey Jr. for his turn in Ally McBeal. If the humour's there and director Jon Favreau can capture lighting twice, Iron Man 2 should be a great bit of fun when it hits early this Summer. But they're a big pair of ifs; this is by no means a sure thing.

Jonah Hex

Release Date: June 18th
Anticipation: 3 out of 10

Summary: In the Wild West, a scarred bounty hunter tracks a voodoo practitioner bent on liberating the South by raising an army of the undead.

Commentary: The latest in a long line of comic book adaptations that have missed more often than they've hit, you have to wonder what a dearth of inspiration there must be in Hollywood to keep execs coming back for more. Certainly with Jonah Hex, "the fastest gun in the West", they're scraping the bottom of the barrel. I could have tolerated a script by the fun-loving twits behind Crank and Gamer, but Robots animation director Jimmy Hayward's first turn at the helm of a live-action feature has reportedly proven disasterous, with the man behind I Am Legend called in to save the day. I'd expect Jonah Hex firstly to be delayed, and then, eventually, to drop like a steaming clod from the wrong end of a horse. Then again, it has Megan Fox in it; perhaps I'm being too kind...


Release Date: April 16th
Anticipation: 7 out of 10

Summary: Dave Lizewski is an unnoticed high school student and comic book fan who one day decides to become a super-hero, even though he has no powers, no training nor any meaningful reason to do so.

Commentary: Nicolas Cage and Andy Garcia lookalike Mark Strong star in the next, much ballyhooed-about feature from Stardust director Matthew Vaughn. Given that latter's involvement, I would be anticipating Kick-Ass more highly were it not for Mark Millar, whose comic book series the film is based on. Hopefully his participation has been kept to a minimum, because I'd hate for that gregarious asshat to ruin a perfectly good adult satire of the superhero genre. The points for nevertheless far outweigh the arguments against: the buzz on the script way back when was stellar, Vaughn's track record is exemplary and the director has even sourced his own funding, meaning studio interference will be kept to an absolute minimum. Watch out for this one.

The Last Airbender

Release Date: July 2nd
Anticipation: 4 out of 10

Summary: Aang is the young successor to a long line of Avatars who must put his childhood ways aside and stop the Fire Nation from enslaving the Water, Earth and Air nations.

Commentary: You have to laugh at the notion anyone might have confused James Cameron's stellar Avatar with The Last Airbender, which comes from M. Night Shyamalan, the greatest ego in all the lands. All the same, The Last Airbender dropped the original title of its animated inspiration for precisely that reason. I might watch the Nickelodeon cartoon one of these days, but I'm not at all hopeful for the film - we all loved The Sixth Sense, but how long can one man glide on a single film's success? Bearing in mind the string of duds including Lady in the Water and The Happening that have come and gone since Shyamalan's debut, better to expect the worst and be pleasantly surprised than to have your high hopes shattered and shat on. Also: the multi-ethnic cast of the cartoon seem to have had their faces painted white. How about that for respectful?

The Last Word

Release Date: December 10th
Anticipation: 7 out of 10

Summary: The story of a couple falling in love as the world falls victim to a pandemic that causes people to slowly lose their sensory perception.

Commentary: Score one for the home team - we have a Scottish film! From the director of indie successes such as Young Adam and Hallam Foe comes a story that brings to mind the likes of 28 Days Later and Children of Men. Little is known beyond the involvement of Eva Green and Ewan McGregor, yet the impressive pedigree of the cast and crew means I'm already sold. Predictable, perhaps, but cannot The Speculative Scotsman indulge a little bias regarding one of maybe three films coming from his home country this year? It's even a bit sci-fi... come on. Please?


Release Date: January 22nd
Anticipation: 3 out of 10

Summary: When God loses faith in Mankind, he sends his legion of angels to bring on the Apocalypse. Humanity's only hope lies in a group of strangers trapped in a desert diner, the Archangel Michael, and the unborn child of one of their number.

Commentary: One of two films in 2010 directed by newcomer Scott Stewart and starring Paul Bettany - the other being Priest - I was reasonably interested in this one until I heard word of the first advance reviews. Pretty effects, apparently, cannot save a camp and clunky take on the war in Heaven. Probably best to watch The Prophecy again, all things considered.


Keep your browsers locked on to The Speculative Scotsman for the fourth part of this extensive rundown of the year ahead in genre film on... I should think Sunday, if all goes to plan.

For the moment: enjoy, discuss, and please, feel free to disagree. I am but a humble highlander, and I'd be interested to hear other perspectives on the landscape of speculative cinema stretching out before us.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Book Review: The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman

[Buy this book from Amazon
in the UK / in the US]

"Listen. The Sanctuary of the Redeemers on Shotover Scarp is named after a damned lie, for there is no redemption that goes on there and less sanctuary.

"The Sanctuary of the Redeemers is a vast and desolate place – a place without joy or hope. Most of its occupants were taken there as boys and for years have endured the brutal regime of the Lord Redeemers whose cruelty and violence have one singular purpose – to serve in the name of the One True Faith. In one of the Sanctuary’s vast and twisting maze of corridors stands a boy. He is perhaps fourteen or fifteen years old – he is not sure and neither is anyone else. He has long-forgotten his real name, but now they call him Thomas Cale.

"He is strange and secretive, witty and charming, violent and profoundly bloody-minded. He is so used to the cruelty that he seems immune, but soon he will open the wrong door at the wrong time and witness an act so terrible that he will have to leave this place, or die. His only hope of survival is to escape across the arid Scablands to Memphis, a city the opposite of the Sanctuary in every way: breathtakingly beautiful, infinitely Godless, and deeply corrupt.

"But the Redeemers want Cale back at any price... not because of the secret he now knows, but because of a much more terrifying secret he does not."


Expectations are high for The Left Hand of God, almost unbearably so. Some have tipped it as among the most anticipated new fantasy novels of 2010, and from the outside looking in, it's not difficult to see why. Here in the UK, Penguin Books have embarked on what is reportedly the single biggest and most expensive publicity drive in the publisher's long history, taking in the most mainstream ad campaign I've ever seen employed for a piece of speculative fiction short of a new Stephen King; not to mention a series of viral trailers you'll find infecting the likes of YouTube and DailyMotion and even, bafflingly, a iPhone app.

The premise, too, sounds appealing. Tailor-made, one might go so far as to say, to hit home with fans of speculative fiction; Hoffman has a check-mark in all the right boxes. There's a chosen one with an impossible love interest and a pair of unwilling allies caught in the middle of an epic battle between powerful opposing forces set against one another; there's a touch of alternate-history about the world Cale must navigate, yet a whiff of the real world rendered unreal in the mode of so many superior narratives.

In short, The Left Hand of God arrives carried aloft by a wave of high hopes and great expectations, but it is far from the equal of either. The Guardian observes that "it might have been planned by a focus group," and reviewer Patrick Ness is right on the money; everything about Hoffman's highly-anticipated genre debut seems calculated to win over fans of speculative fiction, and perhaps it may have, had it not a myriad of other, more commercially viable target markets in mind. Penguin Books only stands a chance of recouping the massive financial investment they've made on The Left Hand of God if it sells fantasy to the masses in the same way they bought into the horror genre via the likes of True Blood and Twilight. This is that book.

None of which, come right down to it, is really Hoffman's problem, but that his publishers have pitched The Left Hand of God far too hard is only the tip of the iceberg. As the action shifts from the sickening training camp at Shotover Scarp to the burlesque streets and alleyways of Memphis where Cale finds refuge from the Redeemers, Hoffman seems to lose sight of the sliver of promise that had speckled the narrative's first act. The pace set by his protagonist's attempts to escape chokes at the sight of the city and soon stalls entirely

For the larger part of The Left Hand of God, in fact, Cale and his companions do... nothing. They wait. Sometimes they talk about not waiting, but decide, invariably, to wait a while longer. The days, weeks and months wasted away in Memphis only serve to pad out the first volume of a fantasy series of indeterminate length; without them, Hoffman's novel would be comparable to a YA effort, and a slim one at that. Perhaps Penguin, seeing some potential in the draft presented them, had its author divide The Left Hand of God down the middle and demanded that Hoffman fatten up the remainder for fear of putting off fantasy fans whose eyes light up at tomes fit to work as well as doorstops as narratives. But I digress - speculating about where it all went awry will do little good.

Hoffman's prose is rarely more than competent. It chugs along like a train-ride to nowhere; eventually, it gets you where you're going, but the awkward stops and starts that punctuate the journey are infinitely more memorable than the supposedly striking vistas glimpsed along the way. His idea of character development never amounts to anything greater than a bit of clumsy exposition that states how and why Cale or one of the forgettable supporting players have changed their outlook. And the worst is yet to come.

As I've said, The Left Hand of God meanders woefully on its way to the inevitable battle between the legions of Redeemers and the armoured Materazzi of Memphis who Cale has inexplicably taken to advising, but when that climactic encounter finally arrives, the pay-off is unspeakably disappointing. Hoffman's clumsy narration during this sequence shifts to an equally ineffective eagle's-eye perspective; he recounts the clash as if it were an historical event occurring in the far distance of time and space.

Still more distracting is the way in which the author's numeric obsession, heretofore only an occasional obstacle, wins out as the irresistible force of the Redeemers meets the Materazzi's immovable object. After building up to this battle for so long, when it comes to the actual article Hoffman seems content to simply relate the mathematical composition of each army; the referential number of each regiment; even the ages of each soldier. Once you've noticed the author falling back upon the presumed safety of the numbers that were so pivotal in his previous work - a book which apparently "predicted the collapse of the world financial system" - the numbers here, there and everywhere become impossible to ignore.

There are occasional glimmers of something worthwhile in The Left Hand of God, but for the most part, Hoffman's first genre novel is derivative, distracted and downright dull. This early in the year, readers are no doubt keen to latch onto the next great fantasy; assuredly, however, this literary identity crisis falls far short of that high watermark. In all likelihood Penguin's disproportionate publicity campaign will persuade enough readers to buy The Left Hand of God that sequels will come along to resolve the many plot threads left unresolved by this disappointing volume's abrupt conclusion, but unless Hoffman hones the scattershot craft he exhibits herein, I truly don't think I'll care enough to find out.


The Left Hand of God
by Paul Hoffman
January 2010, Michael Joseph: London

[Buy this book from Amazon
in the UK / in the US]

Recommended and Related Reading


Tuesday 26 January 2010

From Your Blogosphere Correspondent (26/01/10)

Hold on to your hats, beanies and other assorted headgear, readers one and all: it's that time again... time to get my snark on and gather together a veritable miscellany of the most significant goings-on in the speculative fiction community. For your convenience and mine, here are The Speculative Scotsman's take on a couple of interesting headlines and developments that have been doing the rounds.

First on the agenda: Ursula K. LeGuin has gone to war against the mighty Google machine, with a host of other notable SF&F authors including Kim Stanley Robinson and Nick Harkaway of The Gone-Away World fame in her corner. Cut a long story short, last year Google decided in its infinite wisdom to begin the process of digitising millions of books. A fine use of its vast resources, you might think - certainly a more worthwhile endeavour than its problematic browser Chrome turned out to be - but without the consent of writers and copyright holders alike, the internet's most powerful organisation is basically pirating every variety of literature it can get its hands on; which is to say every variety of literature, full stop.

Unsurprisingly, when Google made public its intent, there was a round of complaints both literal and legal that meant the search engine superpower had to cough up a sizeable settlement to quell the tide against them. Earthsea author LeGuin and her comrades in arms, however, aren't content to sit back and give in to the meager allowances Google has offered to make. They've put their heads together and drafted an objection asking that the US be exempted from the rather worrying consequences entailed by tacitly agreeing to the settlement. If you ask me, more power to them, though sadly I can't imagine a few hundred writers stand much of a chance of overcoming the one media conglomerate to rule them all.

How about a not entirely unrelated aside to make up for all that legal mumbo jumbo? After a car accident in my years as a youngling, my slightly obsessed Mum traded me a week without the embarrassment of going to school with a horrendously swollen face on the assurance that I'd read her battered old copy of the Earthsea quartet. Suffice it to say The Speculative Scotsboy didn't need much convincing.

Next up, you might recall the news from last week's installment of From Your Blogosphere Correspondent that Paramount had handed over the reigns of the sequel to Paranormal Activity to Saw VI director Kevin Greutert.


Nonetheless, in a baffling move, Lionsgate have dropped David Hackl from the next episode of their annual horror-porn franchise only to exercise a contractual option to get Greutert back for Saw VII, presumably to cock-block their pitiable puppet (who I'm honestly beginning to sympathise with) from making Paranormal Activity 2, both of which films were scheduled to come out on the same day.

But that's quite enough of that. In TV news - yes, if you thought TSS didn't have enough on its plate already, you can expect the occasional bit of television coverage in addition to all the babbling about books, films and video games - the sober but brilliant pilot episode of highly anticipated Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica finally aired a few days ago on the horrifically rebranded SyFy Channel. Clearly, US viewers did not care. This does not bode well for the series which io9 asserts, and rightly so in the company of the likes of The Human Target, is "the season's most promising new SF" show. Nevertheless, the impressive feature-length pilot has been available on DVD for dog's years, so the first original episode - due to air Stateside on Friday - will mark a more accurate litmus test for Caprica. Here's hoping the truly dismal ratings to date aren't as ominous a sign as they appear.

Stay tuned to TSS for more on Caprica just as soon as I've watched the boobless broadcast version of the pilot episode in glorious HD.

Quick congrats to the esteemed sodomite Hal Duncan, author of Vellum and Ink, whose diatribe in June 2009 about the ethics of blogging has been nominated, much to his own surprise, for a BSFA award in the non-fiction category. "Ethics and Enthusiasm" is a biting but enlightening must-read for anyone with a blog to their name.

>> EDIT TO REFLECT THAT: As Strange Horizons reviews editor Niall Harrison rightly points out, Hal has since refused the honour of the nomination.

Finally for today, a moment of silence is in order for Neil Gaiman and his nearest and dearest, who were yesterday forced to put their blind, beloved cat Zoe down after the poor creature developed an inoperable tumour in her oesophagus. The American Gods author has been sharing his time with her on his blog, but I'd recommend you read this bittersweet anecdote before the tearful details of Zoe's last moments.


That's it for today From Your Blogosphere Correspondent. Do come again, readers dear. Snacks and treats are issued to all visitors on a daily basis.

I mean blog posts, of course. Don't expect a biscuit. Damn it, I don't even have a biscuit!