Thursday, 4 June 2009

Thieving Fear, by Ramsey Campbell

Four friends camped at the coast as youngsters, and had a very bad night’s sleep. Years later, returning to the spot as adults, something is triggered, and things rapidly decline for them, in very subtle ways. They can’t seem to communicate properly with each other. Their lives
are turning to crap, and there doesn’t seem to be anything they can do about it.

One of the most common complaints about horror films is that if people just told each what’s going on, most of their problems could be solved (Lost has always been notorious for the same thing). That could easily have provided the inspiration for this book. Why don’t they talk to each other? What if they can’t? What if something is stopping them? So it’s all about characters who talk at cross-purposes, mishear and misconstrue words, and run everything through the filter of their own misery. In short, it’s extremely realistic!

That makes this a profoundly miserable and often frustrating reading experience, but a brilliant one. I haven’t read anything so determined to make (and unafraid of making) the reader miserable since Dostoevskys’s Notes from the Underground. For example, it begins with one lead being unfairly accused of racism in an employment tribunal… The weak point of human society and relationships (or maybe the thing that makes society possible!) is the imperfection of communication between us, and this book hammered away at that until it gave. It was very ambitious and difficult – you’d have thought it the work of a angry young man, if it wasn’t for the absolute confidence of every word. I loved it.

Except for one thing, that is: the absence of commas before speech. I read an afterword by Campbell to one of his books where he had a little rant about small-minded proofreaders adding commas to his work. It’s easy to overdo them, but they’re generally useful and their absence in some circumstances causes confusion. The problem here is that if someone’s talking, it says something like: he said “Goodbye to the world”. The comma that should appear after “said” tells you something, it tells you to break what follows off from the descriptive text, it’s a separate utterance by a different person, the character instead of the narrator. Its total absence in this book means the reader must constantly back up after realising some speech is being reported. Yes, it’s a little thing, but it isn’t half infuriating, and in at least one place here it is difficult to be sure whether the text within the quote marks has even been said. Maybe it’s a small thing, but those conventions are there to help the reader, and omitting them is like leaving marbles on the stairs of a story.

Somehow, though, I survived the absence of commas to finish Thieving Fear just an hour before the close of voting. This was the first Ramsey Campbell book I’ve read, and a BFS member told me it wasn’t his best. Well, if that’s not his best, I’ve got some good reading ahead of me! I suppose I was hit with all his good qualities at once, whereas an existing fan would compare it as much to his previous works as to the other nominees. For me this was in a different league to the other books (though I think the best individual scene of any of the novels was in Rain Dogs, in the flooded estate, with the creatures coming up out of the water to tear people apart), and it had to get my vote.

Thieving Fear, Ramsey Campbell, Virgin Books, pb, 320pp

Star Trek

Let’s not be too harsh on recent generations of Star Trek. Sure, after Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica it’s difficult to sit through an entire episode. The pacing is glacial, the humour damn gentle and sex is concealed behind head-to-toe grey jumpsuits. There are way too many scenes of people chatting at desks, and the productions are as set-bound as Tim Burton. But let’s not forget that The Next Generation was brilliant for its time. Its competition wasn’t BSG or new Who, or even Farscape or B5 – in 1987 it was up against crud like ALF and Airwolf, and in comparison it shone.

Later series like Voyager and Enterprise failed to move with the times, and stuck to the same old formula – dreary office chats, a small primary crew whose safety was assured, and story arcs that were half-hearted at best and hopelessly disorganised at worst. Season three of Enterprise upped the ante with a 24-style terrorist hunt, but it was too late, and with death on the horizon a bargain-basement season four devoted itself to out-and-out fan service, leading to some of the most entertaining, Trekky Trek in years – the place to look if you’ve ever wondered why Klingons once had smooth foreheads.

Enterprise’s biggest flaw, though, was its safety. It was about the first Enterprise sent out into a hostile universe – and even though Kirk and Spock, years later, would find themselves encountering the unknown on a weekly basis, Archer’s crew did nothing but visit planets already discovered by the Vulcans. And hardly anyone ever died.

On the big screen, the last two films were crippled (just like The X-Files: I Want to Believe) by the palpable need to give its stars “scenes” at the expense of story. The last Star Trek film, Nemesis, was diabolically dull, essentially two hours of two spaceships floating in space and pointing at each other.

This movie puts right everything that had gone wrong with Star Trek. It’s beautiful, sexy, cool and dangerous. Sex, spaceships, fist-fights and death are restored to their proper places at the heart of the franchise: the girls are wearing mini-skirts, the men have permanently bruised knuckles, the spaceships smash each other to pieces, and redshirts regularly bite the dust.

For the first forty minutes or so I was convinced it was the best movie I’d ever seen, that I’d be sending my wife and child home on their own so that I could watch it again. It didn’t quite live up to that early promise, dropping off slightly somewhere around the point that Kirk runs around with big rubber hands, but was nevertheless extremely entertaining, and easily my favourite film of the year so far.

There are flaws. Nero’s big scary spaceship looks pretty much the same as the big scary spaceship in Nemesis, and while its industrial interior makes sense for a mining ship, it’s nothing we haven’t seen dozens of times before during Voyager’s journey across the Delta Quadrant. It would have benefited from the same level of invention and TLC evidently lavished on the Enterprise. Also, time-travelling Nero’s attempt to destroy the nascent Federation is an unwelcome reminder of Enterprise’s abysmal Temporal Cold War storyline. But those are minor issues, and after all there have been hundreds of episodes of the various programmes – the film couldn’t have been entirely original without jettisoning everything that makes it Star Trek.

The cast is excellent: Chris Pine as Kirk gets everything right. At 29 I think he’s the first Star Trek captain (except maybe Kate Mulgrew) under 40 since Shatner himself (both character and actor are about six years younger than the originals). Zachary Quinto as Spock was note-perfect, though it was hard to forget how sick I am of seeing his face in Heroes. Zoe Saldana as Uhura (now the most important character after Kirk and Spock) is convincingly smart and capable. Karl Urban is fantastic as Bones. Bruce Greenwood is a brilliant, brave Captain Pike. Simon Pegg makes a great engineer, while John Cho makes me wish they’d found room on the bridge for Kal Penn too. The only actor to come out of the film less than well is Eric Bana – he struggles to make any kind of impact, with little screen time and little to do.

This is the Star Trek film for anyone who saw Galaxy Quest and wondered why they couldn’t do it for real.

Now, what happens next? In the original continuity, this film would take place between Captain Pike’s two five year missions. This time around, Kirk’s got his hands on the ship a good six years early, but he’s got six years’ less experience. He hasn’t served on the Farragut, he hasn’t had time to make mistakes, and by the end of the film, the galaxy is a much less hospitable place. The measure of this film’s success isn’t just its box office receipts (gratifyingly huge though they are), but also how much everyone will be looking forward to the next one.

Star Trek, JJ Abrams (dir.), Paramount

On Basilisk Station, by David Weber

Honor Harrington is given a new ship and assigned to Basilisk Station. It’s a poisoned chalice, but she’s going to do her duty, whatever it costs her.

Anyone who enjoyed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, especially the cat-and-mouse battle at its conclusion – and who didn’t? – will thoroughly enjoy this; it’s very much more of the same. Later Trek series were probably influenced in turn by this book.

This is old-fashioned stuff in some ways. The idea of villains being motivated by a desire to pay unemployment benefits is almost charming in its 1980s-style silliness. The set-up is rather like Thatcherite Britain at threat from a European Union gone bad. Or are the aggressors more like Argentina, trying to relieve internal pressures with expansionist policies, making a quick grab for territory? Basilisk Station is as distant from its owners as the Falklands, but much more strategically important.

Less charming is the unreconstructed colonialism that sees the heroes threatened by a native uprising… The conclusion of that storyline is especially stomach-churning, and not quite in the way the author intended. It’s notable that not one of the natives gets a speaking role in the book (unless I missed it), but by gum we get to see their blood.

But though it can be criticised for being old-fashioned in that way, it can also be praised for its progressive feminism. Here we have a female captain who can hold her own with the best of them, and what’s more a crew evenly divided between men and women. To a degree critics could argue that this isn’t true feminism: being a woman is to some extent still a handicap she has to surmount. It’s not something that simply goes unmentioned, or that’s considered irrelevant to the performance of her duties, it’s a problem that’s there to create drama. But I think in the end such considerations are outweighed by her repeated demonstrations of utmost competence.

The influence of Hornblower is acknowledged by the author in an afterword, and readers of C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian may see this as a shallow, clumsily-written imitation. However, I only got through those books by pretending the ships were flying around in space, so that was fine by me. Weber shows particular ingenuity in finding ways to make naval-style tactics relevant to space battles. And where the battles here score above any iteration of Star Trek, for example, is that anything can happen: nobody, except Honor herself, is safe. None of the actors have got a contract in hand for series two…

One of the other pleasures of the book is a simple one: someone doing their job really well. Watching how Honor manages to handle everything thrown at her is very enjoyable, and you can’t help but root for her to come through. She’s an expert in man-management: she displays exceptional tact and understanding to gain the trust of her crew. The way she slowly wins them over is nothing we haven’t seen before, but it never gets old. (Season one of The Closer, for example, featured an almost identical plotline.)

So: highly recommended for anyone who ever wished Patrick O’Brian was a science fiction writer. Note that On Basilisk Station (what a great title, by the way) is available to read for free in a variety of formats from the Baen Books free library, which has definitely done its job here: there’s no doubt that I’ll be reading further volumes in the series.

On Basilisk Station, by David Weber, Baen, pb, 464pp

Phobia #1, ed. Darren Randle

In some ways reviewing this is unfair to everyone involved. It’s a magazine that’s been put together for fun but without any real talent. As a writing group’s internal magazine it would be fine, but thanks to the internet it’s been published in full view of the world, and it doesn’t stand up to such scrutiny.

The stories range from the more or less passable, such as “The Piece” by William J. Piovano, to the Vogonically awful.

For example, “Monday” by Mary C. White is probably the worst story I’ve ever read. I can’t help but feel guilty for criticising it, since it’s really the editor’s fault for putting it out there for people to read – the poor writer should have been left in unhumiliated obscurity – but on the other hand it would be dishonest to let something so appalling pass without comment in a review. Here’s an example of the prose:
“The usual Monday morning call took to the tape on the answering machine, the voice giving birth to the last words quivering in pain. Another bridged pass day, and another last Monday of the month absence would never be removed from a personal file.”
Mary’s bio says that she has several novels set for publication in 2009.

The magazine is filled with mistakes from start to finish. It’s hard to believe anyone has even read this material before publication, let alone edited or proofread it. Story titles include “The Mostquito Woman” and “Echos”, and typesetting errors abound (paragraphs mistakenly centred, tab spaces in the middle of sentences, etc). The writers involved seem to share a complete ignorance regarding the use of apostrophes. Some dispense with them entirely, others add them in the strangest places. For example in “The Lake” Stuart Twyman writes: “The creature cocks its’ head … opens its’ mouth & its’ slavering lips engulf the mans’ face.” Note that he uses ampersands instead of “and” throughout the story.

Overall, despite some moody artwork from Bob Veon, and a striking cover design, Phobia #1 is a mess. It’s a shame, since Darren Randle is a really nice guy. He’s just, on this evidence, a totally hopeless editor.

Phobia #1, Darren Randle (ed.).

One, by Conrad Williams

The superb movie-style cover of this book tells you all you need to know about the plot going in: a man walks to London through a devastated Britain. Despite the tagline – This is you. This is now. And your number is up. – the book isn’t written in the second person, which was a relief.

In the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Peter Nicholls notes in the entry “Holocaust and After” that: “Many of the authors cited have not been closely associated with Genre SF. The post-holocaust theme, particularly in the UK, has had a strong attraction for mainstream writers…” Like those cosy catastrophes of the 1950s, One presents a very literary apocalypse. It’s not a novel concerned with investigating the problems and solving them – answers are thin on the ground – it’s about the feelings they engender and the relationships they rupture.

It’s written in fine style, with expressive touches of flair throughout, but at times this felt rather like a literary author doing his level best to write the most commercial novel possible – a widescreen horror novel – but partially thwarted by his own sensibilities. And so the novel is packed with interesting character moments and striking images, but frustratingly skips past much of the action. We’re never in any doubt as to exactly how Richard Jane feels, but we’re often left rather foggy about what’s actually going on. That makes sense, since Jane himself is often in that same situation, but it’s frustrating for the reader.

But then this isn’t really a book about the apocalypse – it’s a book about a father’s love for his son. Though that side of it had a lasting impact on me – I find myself saying no to my children much less since reading One – it did get a little bit dull. The author shows how difficult Jane’s obsession with his lost son is for other people to cope with, but he may have underestimated how tiresome it would become for readers: by the end of the book the reader comes to fear the mention of Stanley as much as any of the horrors of this nightmarish world.

As usual I’m complaining about minor problems rather than focusing on what was good. This was on the whole a thrilling book, and one I found hard to put down (not that I tried): I read the last 250 pages in more or less one go. I was at all times desperate to find out what would happen next (which probably explains my frustration when the novel slowed for an emotional bit). The apocalyptic opening was nothing short of brilliant, and if the subsequent long walk went on a bit, things really picked up in the second half, in ways I wouldn’t want to reveal in a review.

Overall, a fine novel, but just a bit too ruminatory and elliptical to be the effective mainstream entertainment I was hoping for. In post-apocalyptic movie terms I’d place it just ahead of Neil Marshall’s Doomsday, but just behind 28 Days Later.

One, Conrad Williams, Virgin Books, pb, 364pp.