Friday 30 September 2011

Letters to Editors | Killing Fringe

Dear Network Television Executives, 

You guys... you get a bad rap.

From where you're sat, it's all about the business; I get that. You've got to spend money to make money, and if you don't see a return on your investment on the near or far horizon, then better to declare an early loss than go all in, hoping against hope that something will happen to turn the tables. 

And credit where it's due: you execs have actually been pretty decent this year. I'd go so far as to say surprisingly lovely. For instance, I'm not exactly chuffed that you put Stargate: Universe down like the dog it may or may not have began as, but at least you had the decency to offer those of us who'd stuck it out in the hopes that the series would find its feet some closure in what became its last episode... just as you did with Caprica, amongst others I'm forgetting - perhaps for good reason, now that I think of it - in 2010.

Add to that the shows from 2011 that never found an audience at all, yet still you had the good grace to air almost all of them from first to last. I'm thinking of Terriers, Lights Out and The Chicago Code specifically. Tremendous series, to a one, made the more so because they were allowed to actually end; series whose narratives were able to run their course, and though I'm certain their respective show-runners had ideas as to what twists and turns were around the next bend in the great river, I was content to see of them as much as the eye could see.

So I can't find fault with the decision to cull these three. If no-one was watching them - and no-one really was, as I understand it - then I'll say I'm grateful for small favours, on balance, and come to my point. Which is: given this recent trend of doing the Right Thing, can you do a little thing for me, Network Television Executives?

Can you kill Fringe?

I hate to be the one to say it - I've been a Fringe fan since day one, and I'm no less devoted to the show now than I was way back when - but understand that I ask this thing of you for the greater good, not my own personal pleasure. The sad fact of the matter is that Fringe seems to me is in dire need of a well-meaning mercy-killing.

Not today - please, no! - nor even tomorrow... but I beg of you, can we set an endpoint already?

Cast your minds back to the heyday of another of J. J. Abrams' speculative series. Remember how Lost was the talk of the town for a while, and then, all of a sudden - namely during that execrable interlude when The Others captured Jack and Kate - it wasn't? Do you remember when, instead of throwing in the towel, you guys threw Lost a long-sighted lifeline by stepping in to say, essentially, that the show had had its moment, but its moment was over? 

Fringe is a lot like that, except it was never really the talk of the town to begin with. I mean, it did alright. Enough folks tuned in to keep the Fringe Science Division in milk and paperclips in the early days, but even at the height of its popularity, years past now, Fringe wasn't exactly water-cooler television. And if it wasn't then...

Long story short, no-one's holding out any hope for some ratings renaissance. What you execs want from Fringe seems much more reasonable than that, on the face of it. From the horse's mouth (that is to say Fox's entertainment president Kevin Reilly): "I don't expect explosive growth, but if Fringe can do exactly what it did last year, we're going to be very, very happy with it."

Well, it can't. It won't. Already, though it pains me to say it, it hasn't, because the first episode of season four premiered to 3.5 million viewers. Down of course from the relatively incredible 9.28 million viewers who watched the pilot episode, way back when, but also a share significantly reduced from the 4.9 million viewers who tuned into Fringe's first Friday night episode, when it moved to the Slot of Death last year. And bear in mind that premiere numbers are almost always higher than the ratings for subsequent episodes.

These aren't just ominous numbers; Fringe is in real trouble, folks. Real trouble.

So what to do... what to do?

Well, like I said: kill Fringe.

What you did for Lost, when you declared from on high that season six would be its last... if you ask me, that single decision saved a show in real need of saving. By killing it, albeit on a date to be determined several years hence, you gave Lost new life. That's what I want for Fringe.

Not least because - and by now everyone who aims to watch the fourth season of Fringe will have seen the lackluster first episode, and if not, shame on you - this season seems to me analogous to the indulgent digression in season three of Lost which you will recall spelled that series' eventual end. Which is to say... disappointing.

Of course it's early doors yet. But this ploy to open the door to new viewers is never going to work, not at this late stage - let's not kid ourselves - and I am deathly afraid that it will instead shed so many formerly faithful viewers that Fringe's ratings slide will only continue. Continue till you execs do the only thing you can, given your job description: slaughter the show mid-movement.

And that's the last thing I want. Stories without endings are hardly stories at all, if you ask me. In fact the finale of season three seemed to me at least such an ideal endpoint for the series that I wonder now if Fringe's last-minute renewal will prove not the blessing it initially appeared, but a curse, because it will take the show-runners some time, surely, to arrive again at such a satisfying note for the narrative to close out on. And I very much doubt it has that long.

Now I may not love what I've seen of season four of Fringe, but I have faith in Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci to take me somewhere weird and wonderful, as they have each and every year I've watched this tremendous show... easily the jewel in the crown of genre television, excepting perhaps HBO's Game of Thrones.

Yet I am so very afraid that this rollercoaster is going nowhere.

So please, network television executives: agree to see Fringe through to the bitter end. Let everyone know that this will be its last year, or better yet, agree that season five will be the final season of Fringe, as per the original five-year plan. Give the show-runners a destination to head towards, and time enough to get there.

Kill Fringe, then, if you must. As you must. But kill it softly. That's all I ask.

Fingers crossed,
Niall Alexander.

Thursday 29 September 2011

Book Review | Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

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"Errand requiring immediate attention. Come."

The note was on vellum, pierced by the talons of the almost-crow that delivered it. Karou read the message. 'He never says please', she sighed, but she gathered up her things.

When Brimstone called, she always came.

In general, Karou has managed to keep her two lives in balance. On the one hand, she's a seventeen-year-old art student in Prague; on the other, errand-girl to a monstrous creature who is the closest thing she has to family. Raised half in our world, half in 'Elsewhere', she has never understood Brimstone's dark work - buying teeth from hunters and murderers - nor how she came into his keeping. She is a secret even to herself, plagued by the sensation that she isn't whole.

Now the doors to Elsewhere are closing, and Karou must choose between the safety of her human life and the dangers of a war-ravaged world that may hold the answers she has always sought.


Those of you who know me will know, no doubt, that I am not what you might call a fan of paranormal romance.

In fact in many ways, I think the genre has been a plague on all our houses. I mean, sure... a few more folks are card-carrying readers now than there would otherwise be, thanks to Twilight, and the continuing affairs of Sookie bloody Stackhouse, and so on and so forth. That alone would be cause for celebration, had not the success of these series been such that countless thousands of me-too texts arose overnight, as if from the grave. But the sad truth is there's only room on bookstore shelves for so many spines, and money in our wallets - not to mention the bank vaults of publishers - for so many new releases, practically every one of which is touted as the Next Big Thing, until it isn't.

Even then, if paranormal romance was a genre of literature in which quality seemed to me in the least meaningful, I wouldn't mind. But let's face it: Stephanie Meyer is terrible writer - even Stephen King thinks she's a waste of space - and she's sold a metric googolplex of books. If hers is the bar other paranormal romance writers must aspire to, then it is little wonder that the genre is so rife with rubbish.

Rife... but not entirely overrun.

Though it is the first of her works to be published here in the UK, Daughter of Smoke and Bone is actually Laini Taylor's fourth novel, and her mastery of the craft is on show from word one:

Walking to school over the snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day. It seemed like just another Monday, innocent but for its essential Mondayness, not to mention its Januaryness. It was cold, and it was dark - in the dead of winter the sun didn't rise until eight - but it was also lovely. The falling snow and the early hour conspired to paint Prague ghostly, like a tintype photograph, all silver and haze. (p.1)

Insofar as it demonstrates the ineffable prettiness of Taylor's prose, her wry, knowing sense of humour and the uniqueness of this series' setting, this single paragraph serves to set Daughter of Smoke and Bone apart from the masses. And it only gets better.

Karou is a fantastic protagonist. It's par for the course, of course, that she's smart and funny and talented, not to mention stubborn, beautiful and brave, but Karou is far from picture perfect; she can be cruel, and she is often frivolous. She makes the same mistakes we all would - for love, for friends, for family - and pays for them in kind. Above all else, however, what appealed to me about her character is that she is resolutely not some innocent specimen to be despoiled, or won by some handsome man/monster as if she were a prize.

She had been innocent once, a little girl playing with feathers on the floor of a devil's lair. She wasn't innocent now, but she didn't know what to do about it. This was her life: magic and shame and secrets and teeth and a deep, nagging hollow at the center of herself where something was most certainly missing. (p.45)

Indeed, something most certainly is. There's something off about Karou, you see. Everyone who knows her knows it - and it goes beyond the secrets she must keep... the double life she must live. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is about Karou's discovery of that absent aspect of her character: the secret piece that will explain the puzzle that is her existence, betwixt here - in our world - and Elsewhere, where dwells the demon that is her adopted daddy.

Brimstone is not your usual father figure. More beast than man - yet more a man than most - while he can be found behind any number of doors in our world, Brimstone is not of our world, but another:

It wasn't like in the storybooks. No witches lurked at crossroads disguised as crones, waiting to reward travelers who shared their bread. Genies didn't burst from lamps, and talking fish didn't bargain for their lives. In all the world, there was only one place humans could get wishes: Brimstone's shop. And there was only one currency he accepted. It wasn't gold, or riddles, or kindness, or any other fairy-tale nonsense, and no, it wasn't souls either. It was weirder than any of that.

It was teeth. (p.33)

And what of Karou? If she too is from Elsewhere, then why does she not have the aspect of an eagle, or a fox, or a crocodile, like her father? If she is from here and not there, though, why did Brimstone take her in, seventeen years ago? For what purpose does she travel each week to the darkest corners of the world, to collect the teeth of dead things from merchants who want Brimstone's wishes for their troubles? Is she a creature of light, or dark? An angel, or a demon? An omen of war, or the promise - the hope - of peace?

If you're at all familiar with the genre of this novel, I'm sure you'll have a good guess at the ready... and you wouldn't be entirely amiss in your imaginings. In short: if you don't do patience, then don't do Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I'd say the same if you aren't prepared to give paranormal romance a chance, because this is absolutely that. Rest assured, however, that
though there are moments when one wishes Taylor would just get on with what seems inevitable, given the genre's tendencies, she is, as it transpires, ever a step or ten ahead, and in the interim her prose is such a wonder that the getting there is no chore.

Would that I could talk to you about where Daughter of Smoke and Bone goes, for that is where it truly comes into its own. Sadly, much of what is remarkable about this justifiably lauded novel is discovered only in its magnificent last act, and these are revelations I wouldn't dream of ruining for those among you who are yet to have the pleasure. Suffice it to say that appealing eau de la urban fantasy of the sections of Daughter of Smoke and Bone set in entrancing Prague - which will lure you in "like the mythic fey who trick travelers deep into forests until they're lost beyond hope" (p.183) - are brilliantly substituted for high fantasy of the highest variety.

In style and in substance, Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a breathtaking creation. Nominal in its premise, perhaps, but truly beautifully wrought; Laini Taylor's latest is easily ten times the book Twilight is, was, or ever will be.

Alas, I doubt that it will sell a tenth as many copies.

(It should.)


Daughter of Smoke and Bone
by Laini Taylor

UK Publication: September 2011, Hodder & Stoughton
US Publication: September 2011, Little, Brown

Buy this book from

Recommended and Related Reading

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Video Game Review | Resistance 3, dev. Insomniac Games

Once upon a time, Resistance meant something.

In the early years of the PS3, when it looked disturbingly like Sony were yet again fighting an uphill battle, not to mention losing - to the Xbox 360, of course, but also to the Wii, and this when the Wii was at its most potent - Resistance: Fall of Man was a call to arms of sorts. A Halo-killer, they said, with bits of Bioshock in... and who in their right mind wouldn't want that?

Alas, like Killzone before it, and again after it, the first Resistance was crushed under the not-inconsiderable weight of expectations. It was no Halo, no Call of Duty, and assuredly no Bioshock, but for a few text and audio logs your player character - Nathan Hale, a one-man army with a strict sell-by date - could pick up.

For all that, though, Resistance: Fall of Man was alright. It was very much an Insomniac joint: coming as it did from the developers of Ratchet & Clank, it had a neat, arcadey feel to it, a bunch of interesting weapons you could and should switch between on the fly, and a concept (aliens invade) which, if it was a little overfamiliar - and it was - then at least it was a new spin on an old story. The alt-history of the early 50s Insomniac Games' creative team cobbled together was a familiar thing twisted almost beyond recognition. It looked the part, played the part, but its various successes aside, it could never realistically have hoped the part was be any more meaningful than any other understudy's.

With Resistance 2, in 2008, Insomniac only dug in deeper. This was exactly the wrong thing for it to do. Nobody needed yet another wartime shooter, and what had made Resistance: Fall of Man stand out was largely absent its rushed sequel. It was a bigger thing, oh yes, but very far from a better thing. The Resistance franchise was in the end its own worst enemy, stripping its own corpse - how ghastly! - of the very things which had made it distinct... if only ever slightly so.

Colour me utterly bloody beside myself with surprise, then, at what I'm about to say, because Resistance 3 is easily the best Resistance yet. Third time's the charm, right?

It's not hard to see the benefits wrought of the extra year Insomniac took developing this second sequel: in everything from the stunning lighting to the pared-down and markedly more effective narrative, by way of the myriad refinements applied to the twitchy, free-for-all gunplay returning from the original Resistance rather than the more directed experience that (in part) made Resistance 2 such a boob. Resistance 3 is Resistance done right, finally, and the best argument I've seen in recent years for taking whatever time it takes to do something justice, instead of shitting out an installment every holiday season come hell or high water.

Humanity is old news, in Resistance 3. Only a scant fraction of the population has made it through the Chimeran attack initiated in the first game, none unscathed, and the efforts of infected man of action Nathan Hale in the sequel served to quicken the fall of man, rather than stop it. Now even his heroic hardships are of a bygone era, because Nathan Hale is gone: shot dead, in fact, by Corporal Joseph Capelli, which is to say the player character of Resistance the third.

Joseph is one of a few survivors eking out an existence underground in Haven, Oklahoma, where Resistance 3 begins. When their hideaway is inevitably discovered, Joseph's wife Susan begs him to leave her and their son, Jack, in order to go with Dr. Fyodor Malikov to the Chimeran tower atop the ruins of New York, where the scientist believes the wormhole gradually freezing the entire surface of the earth can be closed. Eventually, the former Corporal obliges and sets sail for the Big Apple, but not before Susan has implied that she would pick Jack's safety over Jospeh's any day of the week.

Resistance 3's story allows it a few moments of spectacle, of gargantuan alien grandeur or appalling human horror - best exemplified by a long level that put me in mind of nothing so much as that one time I went to Ravenholm - but by and large the narrative of this finely-honed return to form is a more personal affair than those loosely chronicled in either of its predecessors. And it hits home all the harder for that, imbuing the moment-to-moment experience of Resistance 3 - which is to say left trigger to aim, right trigger to shoot, rinse and repeat... as per the formula of every other shooter, but faster, and more fun for it - with precious import on the small scale as well as the impossibly large.

A darker, more intimate, and ultimately more meaningful sequel to a should have been and a could have been respectively, Resistance 3 simply is, and it is, at last, no longer the least of all the franchises scrapping over the FPS crown. Polished to a sparkling sheen, it is a gorgeous thing bolstered by fundamentally satisfying core mechanics inspired as much by Ratchet & Clank as Call of Duty, and though neither of those series are under any threat from Resistance 3, with this third iteration, Insomniac are finally fighting the good fight.

Shame, then, that if reports are to be believed, this will be the studio's last dalliance with a franchise only now hitting its stride. No doubt Resistance will power on into the next generation, and perhaps beyond, but without Insomniac at the helm, who knows what fate may await the last remnants of humanity? Them, or us.

Monday 26 September 2011

The Scotsman Abroad | Floor to Ceiling Zombies

I couldn't be happier than to have a guest post up over at the one-stop shop that is Floor to Ceiling Books while Amanda's AFK, sunning herself back to full blogging capacity at some undisclosed location in the United States... leaving the lunatics to run the asylum!
Anyway, I thought you all might be interested. It's my review of The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan: the first of a moderately popular trilogy of books for young adults which aim to do for zombies and horror what The Hunger Games did for survival sf.
I didn't even hate it!
But then, I didn't adore it half as much as I did and do its covers...

Here's a bit from the review: 
"I can forgive a beautiful wordsmith much, and Carrie Ryan is that, at times. To wit, writers with such admirable aspirations often fall afoul of prose so minutely considered as to seem overwrought - some might say I should know! - yet there is a terrific undercurrent of the unspoken to Ryan's dialogue, while the understated comes naturally to her exposition. Her imagery is often haunting; her lexicon evocative, and absolutely appropriate to the tale, which is to say one of solitude and belief, love and trust."
If you've a mind to read more about The Forest of Hands and Teeth - and it's a book I would recommend, albeit with certain reservations - please do click on through for more where that came from.
But I'm left with a question. Do I read on immediately, by way of The Dead-Tossed Waves? Or do I give another recently or about-to-be completed series a shot, like the Leviathan books by Scott Westerfeld, or N. K. Jemisin's Kingdoms trilogy?

Help a fella out with your recommendations, readers?

Sunday 25 September 2011

Books Received | The BoSS for 25/09/11

In The BoSS this week: a book Patrick Rothfuss wishes he had written... what must be the shortest thing ever to bear Peter F. Hamilton's name... a selection of stories of the unpossible... one tome... and a book that's been likened to Deliverance.

Yes, the film. Curious and curiouser!

So. Shall we?


Manhattan In Reverse
by Peter F. Hamilton

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 07/10/11
by Macmillan

Review Priority
4 (Pretty Bloody Likely)

The Blurb: A collection of short stories from the master of space opera; his first in thirteen years.

Peter F Hamilton takes us on a journey from a murder mystery in an alternative Oxford in the 1800s to a brand new story featuring Paula Mayo, Deputy Director of the Intersolar Commonwealth’s Serious Crimes Directorate. Dealing with intricate themes and topical subjects, Manhattan in Reverse sees this bestselling author at the top of his game.

My Thoughts: How strange it is to hold in one's hands a book by Peter F. Hamilton that isn't an almighty door-stopper! Strange, but good strange, I should say; not bad. I was reading through the Commonwealth novels last year, but I'm afraid I rather stalled on the second of them, though I'd very much enjoyed my time with the first. 

Manhattan in Reverse, then, given its markedly more modest stature - only 250-odd pages, all told - should be the perfect opportunity for me to get back into the swing all things Peter F. Hamilton.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone
by Laini Taylor

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 29/09/11
by Hodder & Stoughton

Review Priority
5 (A Sure Thing)

The Blurb: Errand requiring immediate attention. Come.

The note was on vellum, pierced by the talons of the almost-crow that delivered it. Karou read the message. "He never says please," she sighed, but she gathered up her things. 

When Brimstone called, she always came. 

In general, Karou has managed to keep her two lives in balance. On the one hand, she's a seventeen-year-old art student in Prague; on the other, errand-girl to a monstrous creature who is the closest thing she has to family. Raised half in our world, half in Elsewhere, she has never understood Brimstone's dark work - buying teeth from hunters and murderers - nor how she came into his keeping. She is a secret even to herself, plagued by the sensation that she isn't whole.

Now the doors to Elsewhere are closing, and Karou must choose between the safety of her human life and the dangers of a war-ravaged world that may hold the answers she has always sought.

My Thoughts: Blurbed by the beast of a thousand beards, Patrick Rothfuss himself, and highly recommended to me by Amanda of Floor-to-Ceiling Books, Daughter of Smoke and Bone is being touted as the Next Big Thing in fantasy... 

... given all of which, my hopes for it are high, setting certain expectations which the promising synopsis above does nothing to dissuade. Fingers crossed it's all that!

Unpossible and Other Stories
by Daryl Gregory

Vital Statistics
Published in the US
on 01/11/11
by Fairwood Press

Review Priority
4 (Pretty Bloody Likely)

The Blurb: The short stories in this first collection by critically acclaimed writer Daryl Gregory run the gamut from science fiction to contemporary fantasy, with a few stories that defy easy classification. His characters may be neuroscientists, superhero sidekicks, middle-aged heroes of children’s stories, or fantatics spreading a virus-borne religion, but they are all convincingly human.

Says Nancy Kress, author of Steal Against the Sky: "Facts do not begin to describe Daryl. Not describe him, not contain him, not constrain him. Both in person and in his fiction Daryl breaks the paltry bonds of fact; they cannot hold him. Read these stories for their human truths, for their inventiveness, for their verve. Most of all, read them for your own pleasure."

My Thoughts: From The Uninnocent to Unpossible, eh?

Of Daryl Gregory's three novels, I'm ashamed to admit I've only read his latest, Raising Stony Mayhall. But it was, in short, brilliant. (Stay tuned for a full review in the not-too-distant.) I am thus positively gagging to get started on this, his first short story collection, out from Fairwood Press in either October or November... I'm not 100% sure which.

In the interim, do check out this discussion about the incredible cover art, via your abominable friend and mine, what blogs at Stomping on Yeti.

A Single Shot
by Matthew R. Jones

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 15/09/11
by Mulholland Books

Review Priority
4 (Pretty Bloody Likely)

The Blurb: Anyone's life can change in an instant. In Matthew F. Jones's acclaimed novel, one man's world is overturned with a single shot.

Trespassing on what was once his family's land, John Moon hears a rustle in the brush and fires. But instead of the deer he was expecting, he finds the body of a young woman, killed by his stray bullet. A terrible dilemma is made worse when he stumbles upon her campground - and the piles of drugs and money concealed there.

Moon makes his choice: he hides the corpse, and takes the cash. His decision will have consequences he can neither predict or control.

My Thoughts: Apparently this book was huge in America, where it's been available for decades. Decades, I tell you!

Well... better late than never, I guess. A Single Shot is only just now coming overseas, courtesy the estimable folks in charge of Mulholland Books, and I'm quite excited to read it. The quotes on the back cover of the review copy I have reference Deliverance, of all things, and if there's anything at all to the comparison... why, I think I could come to like this book a lot.

It's been a while since I put myself through anything half so nerve-wracking as that. Too long, even!

by Neal Stephenson

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 20/09/11
by Atlantic Books

Review Priority
3 (We'll See)

The Blurb: Across the globe, millions of computer screens flicker with the artfully coded world of T'Rain - an addictive internet role-playing game of fantasy and adventure. But backstreet hackers in China have just unleashed a contagious virus called Reamde, and as it rampages through the gaming world spreading from player to player - holding hard drives hostage in the process - the computer of one powerful and dangerous man is infected, causing the carefully mediated violence of the on-line world to spill over into reality.

A fast-talking, internet-addicted mafia accountant is brutally silenced by his Russian employers, and Zula - a talented young T'Rain computer programmer - is abducted and bundled on to a private jet. As she is flown across the skies in the company of the terrified boyfriend she broke up with hours before, and a brilliant Hungarian hacker who may be her only hope, she finds herself sucked into a whirl of Chinese Secret Service agents and gun-toting American Survivalists; the Russian criminal underground and an al-Qaeda cell led by a charismatic Welshman; each a strand of a connected world that devastatingly converges in T'Rain.

An inimitable and compelling thriller that careers from British Columbia to South-West China via Russia and the fantasy world of T'Rain, Reamde is an irresistible epic from the unique imagination of one of today's most individual writers.

My Thoughts: What, only 1000 pages long? That's positively a short story by Neal Stephenson's standards!

That said... you know, I really do want to read this - this and another recent arrival nearing 1000 printed pages, which we'll talk about next week, all things being equal - but though the idea of such mammoth narratives always appeals to me in principle, in practice, alas, only very rarely do I have time on my hands to do such stories justice.

But maybe I'll make time for Reamde. Already I've heard some very promising things about it, and I suppose it's been a while since I binged on Anathem... who knows?


With which, we come to the conclusion of another chapter in the never-ending chronicle of books received by me. It's a good life, some weeks! :)

So what should I read first, folks? There's just so much to choose from, and sadly my decision-making capabilities usually pick moments like these to vanish with nary a trace...

Thursday 22 September 2011

Film Review | I Saw The Devil, dir. Jee-woon Kim

There's so much of everything these days: so many horror films, so many fantasy novels, so many first-person shooters... whatever your particular poison, there are in this day and age so very many candidates competing for your attention that you have to have some system to tell the wheat apart from the chaff.

Me? I tend to follow the talent. It's not enough that I Saw The Devil is a horror film from Korea, for instance. I've seen plenty of those, and more of them bad than good, in truth. But that it's the latest from Jee-woon Kim, the writer/director who brought us A Tale of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life? Well. That would have made it as good as a gimme... if I'd only known.

Somehow, however, I'd managed to completely blank on that really rather salient information, so it wasn't till the closing titles of I Saw The Devil rolled - fully two and a half hours after I'd selected a random movie from the international cinema shelf - that I realised what I'd been watching... and why I was so comprehensively blown away by it.

I Saw The Devil is without question the most effective horror film I've seen since The Human Centipede, and for all that film's faults, we can, I hope, agree that it had its merits, too: a truly ghastly premise, of course, but also a daring, unflinching vision, some unforgettable visual effects, and an atmosphere thick throughout with tension, terror, and pure, undiluted disgust. I Saw The Devil has all that and - brace yourselves, I'm going to say it - more.

From its first shot - the chronicle of a long drive along a desolate road blanketed in snow, from the POV of psycho-killer Kyung-chul, played to unnerving perfection by Min-sik Choi - through to its last, which I won't spoil, Jee-woon Kim's latest (perhaps even his greatest) is a beautiful, brutal thing; truly, madly, deeply masterful in its execution, and set apart from its radical conception on out. I Saw The Devil is in short a revenge thriller with a key differential, in that the avenger becomes as much a monster, in short order, as the monster he seeks vengeance from.

Our hero, such as he is: Jee-woon Kim's usual co-conspirator, the stalwart Byung-hun Lee as Kim Soo-hyeon, a married special forces fellow whose pregnant wife is slaughtered in I Saw The Devil's stark, not to mention shocking, cold open. Kim Soo-hyeon has little time for grief thereafter. He takes two weeks' worth of compassionate leave from the agency, and devotes every second of that time to the hunt for his wife's sadistic killer.

To my surprise, not even an hour into I Saw The Devil, Kim Soo-hyeon had both found and confronted the remorseless monster Kyung-chul... then, as if even murder were too good a fate for him, set him free, with - I shit you not - a wad of cash to pay his way. So begins a cruel and unusual (but justified insofar as any cold-blooded crime is) game of catch and release: Kim Soo-hyeon will track and trap Kyung-chul like the animal he is, until he judges this horrifying specimen of humanity has suffered as much or more than he imagines the love his life must have done.

I Saw The Devil is not a film for the faint-hearted, or anyone whose stomach churns at the thought of graphic depictions of all the evils men do: bloodshed, bullying, butchery; rape and molestation and murder. I Saw The Devil is not a film about any of these things, strictly speaking, but nor does it shy away from them, as so many movies do. Jee-woon Kim's camera rarely cuts away at the excruciating moment the horror tradition in cinema has led us to expect, if it does at all. Rather, it lingers... that we may see, and feel, the nerve-shredding extent of the awfulness unfolded in the name of vengeance, in Kim Soo-hyeon's case, or unfettered desire, per Kyung-chul's.

Both Byung-hun Lee and Min-sik Choi, as protagonist and antagonist, bring to their respective roles such complete commitment as to ably bear the terrible burden demanded of each; and each bears it in a manner steadfast to their character. Kyung-chul is manic, animated and utterly uninhibited. Kim Soo-hyeon, meanwhile, is stoic, spent but determined... an immovable force set against an unstoppable object. Which, one wonders, will give way first?

Beautifully shot, despite the horrors of what Jee-woon Kim is actually shooting, and so singularly faithful to its twisted vision as to leave the viewer reeling for most of its 150 minute run-time, I Saw The Devil is a rare steak of a film, comprehensively cooked, yes, but blue and oozing on the plate, sickeningly soft in the mouth, and metallic with the tang of still-warm blood as it coats your throat. It might very well make you sick. Equally, I Saw The Devil might be among the best meals you ever had.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

The Scotsman Abroad | The Horrors of Horror

We had a good chat a couple of weeks ago, I think, about horror, and how horribly it tends to end. That was a discussion in large part brought to bear by Nathaniel Katz's review of The Ritual, and the Caitlin R. Kiernan I had been reading... but also a couple of movies I'd volunteered to watch for review on VideoVista, The Zone's sister site for cinema. A couple of horror movies, of course, that I'd heard great things about. 

Alas. These films were assuredly not great things, and in both cases that had a lot to do with the way they concluded... or didn't.

Why don't we start with the show-stopper? 

The Silent House is a Uruguayan found footage affair ostensibly shot in a single take, about a girl and her handyman father who go to clean up a cottage in the countryside only to find themselves terrorised by something that goes bump and stab in the night. It's actually good shit, for the most part. Sadly:

The Silent House would have been a manifestly more memorable piece in totality without its ill-conceived last act, wherein Hernandez takes it upon himself to explain what should by all rights be left inexplicable. In so doing, the ambitious director overreaches at the last (but not least) hurdle, systematically it seems subverting the power of all the alarming happenings he bade us witness only moments ago, because sadly, the muddled rationale Hernandez spells out - the big reveal before the final curtain comes clattering down, ten minutes too late - goes wholly against the internal logic so deliberately, delicately established before. We are left, then, with not the intricate puzzle we had presumed, to be turned over and over in our minds after the fact - perhaps unpicked in the fullness of time, or perhaps not - but only... a trick; a cheat; an unholy hoax. 

That said, The Silent House seemed to me a masterpiece next to Julia's Eyes, the last film to bear super-producer Guillermo del Toro's name before Are You Afraid of the Dark? The problem with Julia's Eyes is as follows:

It is, at heart, a daft little horror film - proficiently executed on a technical level, from set dressing through effects by way of Fernando Velázquez's throwback Psycho score and Óscar Faura's exceptional cinematography, but narratively it is no more and no less than a nonsense - if not an utter nothing. Mistakenly, Morales approaches the film's story with such po-facedness as to render this ridiculous thing conspicuously ignorant of its own ridiculousness. He seems to think his themes far-reaching and his characters sincerely meaningful when they are in reality no more than cyphers, to a one; and how gripping his script?

I'll tell you: not... one... whit. Only in its moderately powerful middle third is Julia's Eyes even passing tense or atmospheric. In the erstwhile, it is limp, insubstantial, vastly overlong, and as obtuse as the revelation Morales attempts to pass off as a twist, come the dreadful dénouement, which only serves to underscore what an almighty waste of time Julia's Eyes is.

So we're right back where we started; surprise, surprise.

But stay tuned... all is not lost! Later this week I'll be reviewing the best horror film I've seen in some time, and certainly the most disturbing movie - genre or not - I've sat down with since The Human Centipede. So there's that.

Monday 19 September 2011

Book Review | The Departure by Neal Asher

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Visible in the night sky the Argus Station, its twin smelting plants like glowing eyes, looks down on nightmare Earth. From Argus the Committee keep an oppressive control: citizens are watched by cams systems and political officers, it's a world inhabited by shepherds, reader guns, razor birds and the brutal Inspectorate with its white tiled cells and pain inducers.

Soon the Committee will have the power to edit human minds, but not yet, twelve billion human being need to die before Earth can be stabilized, but by turning large portions of Earth into concentration camps this is achievable, especially when the Argus satellite laser network comes fully online...

This is the world Alan Saul wakes to in his crate on the conveyor to the Calais incinerator. How he got there he does not know, but he does remember the pain and the face of his interrogator. Informed by Janus, through the hardware implanted in his skull, about the world as it is now Saul is determined to destroy it, just as soon as he has found out who he was, and killed his interrogator.


I have my problems with Neal Asher's politics. 

Perhaps you're already wondering what in the world I'm going on about. If that's the case, do yourself a favour and skip the next bit, because by the dead, it's got to be better not to know.

So where were we? Ah yes: Neal Asher and his contrarian politics. Well, truth be told, he makes no secret of them. Take this tirade:

...the restriction imposed on public travel - quickly becoming the privilege of the government bureaucrats only - had started way back with numerous bogus crises used to divert the public eye from what was really fucking over the planet: too many people. That was a problem no democratic government could attain office by offering to solve, and one that would only be cured by Mother Nature applying her tender mercies, or by some totalitarian regime applying Nazi-like final solutions. It seems that, here and now, Earth had both. (p.60) 

Long story short, Neal Asher is a global warming denier - a real right-winger - and thanks to the mainstream success of his various sf series, uppermost amongst them The Polity, he's a man with some standing, and a very visible platform from which he often espouses the tenets of his particular faith; his faith as opposed to the facts and the science that stand strident against his beliefs, I mean.

None of which makes Neal Asher a bad person, and certainly not a bad writer... only misguided, in my view - of course in my view; after all we're talking politics here, and few things could be further from the truth than politics - only misguided, as I was saying, and (here's what really bothers me) not a little irresponsible. Because it's one thing to use your standing as an author to publicise those things you have authored -- another entirely, I think, to abuse your position of power to pitch your particular idea of the facts, such as they are, to those folks who admire you for your fiction. 

So I have my problems with Neal Asher's politics. But truth be told, I had no issues at all with Neal Asher's novels... not till I read The Departure. It was my first of his works, and though I am wise enough never to say never, it will, I expect, be my last.

And not for the reasons you might foresee -- though, you know... those too.

The Departure is the first novel in a new series from the Daily Mail favourite: the origin story of one Alan Saul, so-called Owner of the Worlds. He begins, in the grand tradition of protagonists all through the ages, an amnesiac, bereft of his personality, his memories, and by and large his very humanity. Exactly how he came to be such a blank slate is the primary concern of the first third of The Departure, during which act the reader is also brought up to speed on the state of the world in the 22nd century.

Brace yourself, folks: for even according to Neal Asher, a hundred-odd years from now it's not all raindrops and lollipops for Earth and us mere mortals. Never one to show rather than tell, however - and here we arrive at that aspect of The Departure I found most problematic - at the outset of each chapter, Asher outlines a thankfully brief lesson in the inner workings of his near-future milieu. In the first, we are instructed how "as politicians worked diligently to weld together the main blocks of world nations into a coherent and oppressive whole, and their grip on people's everyday lives grew steadily tighter, government increasingly monitored, censored and stifled the Internet." (p.1) In the next, we learn how "the latest news about Mars began getting shunted into second place by the latest scandal about a paedophile footballer or the latest religious fanatic with an overpowering urge to convert unbelievers into corpses," (p.26) and so on and so forth.

This paranoid, deeply pessimistic perspective is the not the sum total of what Asher aims to pass off as world-building in The Departure - there are a legion of other, equally egregious examples (some still more insidious) - but so surfaced, and so tied into the narrative which eventually comes to accompany these thinly-veiled invectives, there's really nowhere else to look, however much you might like to. In short, Asher so foregrounds his politics that it proves quite impossible to avoid them.

Again I should stress: it's not the politics that bother me, strictly speaking - though of course they do - so much as the awkward, obvious way in which Asher presents them. There are no real rules for writers to abide by, as it is often said, but it is also said (at least as often) that if there was just one, it would be: show, don't tell.

In The Departure, Neal Asher flies in the face of this guidance at every turn, and in so doing exposes the essential sense behind it, because these moments - these many, many moments - add nothing to the narrative next to what they subtract from it. Rhythms are interrupted, themes are obscured, belief is regularly beggared... which isn't to speak of the barely functional prose and stilted dialogue which seems to me telling of Asher's haphazard approach:

'I have attained my first goal,' he said emotionlessly. 'I now know who I am, so it is time for me to attain my next goal.' His faced showed extreme emotion, raw hate. 'Now I must show these fuckers they've really made an enemy.' (p.103)

With this ho-hum identity crisis finally behind him, Alan Saul promptly declares war on The Man, because "justified by his vision of the greater good, anything was permissible, even murder." (p.14) Thereafter, what little character there is in The Departure diminishes into the middle distance to make way for what amounts to Total Recall meets The Terminator in a universe painted "mostly shit-brown and battleship-grey." (p.47)

And I expect that will appeal to some. The bare bones of the premise attracted me, even, despite my misgivings - rather than that I might herein find fodder with which to reinforce them - but the loathsome way in which Asher opts to flesh out his skeleton characters and narrative left this particular reader, at least, distinctly dissatisfied. Carelessly composed and, alas, not at all apolitical, The Departure is for the larger part practically intolerable. By all means look beyond the right-wing agendas Asher serves up with such relish... treat them merely as inappropriate appetisers, but you will likely find all that remains is an excruciatingly violent and unapologetically amoral novel, such that the experience of reading The Departure seems "part of a journey through some lower circle of hell: just canyons of concrete and the partially dismembered dead, bloody splashes and body parts." (p.85)

Saying that, I did not despise the sequences set on a Mars base being downsized in the most nightmarish way you can imagine. These lamentably occasional interludes seemed to me substantially more interesting than Alan Saul's one-note origin story; in fact they brought to mind certain elements of Gardens of the Sun and The Quiet War by Paul McAuley. Markedly superior works of sf, needless to say -- and not because they were without ideologies of their own, nor because those beliefs more closely aligned with mine, but because there was rather more to them than dubious politics and gratuitous violence garbed in genre fatigues.

If only Asher could reign himself in a bit, and focus on those things that are actually meaningful in terms of character and narrative, I expect the inevitable next Owner novel - particularly given how The Departure concludes - could and should be much improved over this meaningless misfire. Hope springs eternal.


The Departure
by Neal Asher

UK Publication: September 2011, Tor

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