Thursday, June 21, 2018

I Watch Films: The Face of Fu Manchu

I’m the guy who wrote a 31 part chapter-by-chapter review of a Fu Manchu novel, so this is very much my jam. So what do I think of 1965’s The Face of Fu Manchu?

Well for the start of a Fu Manchu series it starts in a bold way, by having Nayland Smith witness the execution of Dr Fu Manchu. He then returns to London where he investigates some strange occurrences, most notably the disappearance of a biochemist, Professor Muller.

As might be expected Muller was working on extracting a secret compound from a Tibetan poppy. Fu Manchu uses it to devastate the (fictional) Essex village of Fleetwick and threaten London. In an interesting idea taken from The Insidious Fu Manchu, Nayland Smith realises that all his plans take place from bases on the Thames and tracks him down. They force him out of England, track him back to Tibet and blow him up, killing him for sure this time.

The series continues in The Brides of Fu Manchu.

Watch This: For a cool old-school (set somewhere in the past when it was made) adventure.
Don’t Watch This: Although it’s significantly less racist than the books, don’t look to it for a clever and nuanced fictionalisation of the relationship between Britain and China.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

I Read Stories: The Secret Life of Bots

Pictures increase traffic to posts, probably
The Secret Life of Bots by Suzanne Palmer

This is a charming tale of tiny robots attempting to repair a decrepit starship. A decrepit starship on one last mission. One last mission to save the Earth. And there’s a rat-bug loose causing havoc.

Read This: For a tiny adventure of robots doing what they should and what they shouldn’t
Don’t Read This: If you hate robots or fun
Available: Online at Clarkesworld Magazine

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

I Watch Movies: Alien: Covenant

I’m not saying that the company skimped on the windows they put in the landing vehicles on the colony ship Covenant. But I do think that the quarantine glass on the lander medical bay and the windshield on the cockpit of the cargo lander ought to stand up to more than one or two headbutts from a xenomorph.

SPOILERS for Alien: Covenant by the way.

So here’s Covenant, trapped between Prometheus and Alien, trying to navigate between the stupid excitement married to faux-profound musings on the origin of humanity of the former and the elegant horror bonkersness of the latter. Perhaps inevitably it is the second option it tends towards. Though maybe not so elegant.

The good news, especially for Michael Fassbender fans, is that it embodies the alternative viewpoints in two different Fassbenders. Unfortunately one of those views is very bad, and the other is stupid. Still, this does mean we get Fassbender debating Fassbender about love vs duty; Fassbender snogging Fassbender; and, inevitably, Fassbender fighting Fassbender.

Watch This: If you want more Alien, with a new and ridiculous origin story, even though the series passed its peak some time ago (Alien vs Predator: Requiem)

Don’t Watch This: If you are tired of Alien and the constant need to give us new versions of the xenomorph, this idea having passed its peak some time ago (Alien vs Predator: Requiem)

Monday, June 18, 2018

I Read Stories: The Great Wall of China

The actual Great Wall.
The Great Wall of China by Franz Kafka

This short story reads like Kafka riffing off some ideas of what the Great Wall could be or might be, and what China isn’t but is known to be – enormous, bureaucratic, centralised but also shattered, slow and inefficient, yet with a reason behind it. It will not tell you anything true about China or the Great Wall. It might give you something to think about.

Read This: For a minor bit of Kafka musing on incompleteness and delay.
Don’t Read This: For any information about actual China.
Available Online: In translation at this link.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Liner Notes 7

Here are some behind the scenes thoughts on my story Second Chance and the attendant essay on the Deep Patrol's vessels, cutters and cruisers.

Liner Notes 7

Doppelgangers! They’re all over the place. In fact yesterday I saw an episode of Westworld in which some characters discovered copies of themselves. That’s not the inspiration for this story though, which I wrote last year. So I spend a couple of sentences on an actual science fiction concept; what if there was another you, what would they do, how would you feel, what would the relationship between the two of you be?

This is the halfway point of the stories, and having cycled through each member of the crew we return to follow Gunn, though at a distance, the camera mostly observing the scene rather than lurking inside his head. Under my original plan the halfway point would have been marked by a two part episode. Instead there’s this, self-contained, and self-referential. It is a turning point though. Gunn gets a chance to see what he looks like from the outside and... he’s not as impressed as he might have hoped. Will that change anything going on?

The Total Fun Corporation, a rogue AI cell that creates populist situational art projects that sometimes are indistinguishable from terrorism seem like a good antagonist. They can do almost anything so long as it’s cool, or interesting, or striking. They even get to make a blatant point or two about the fiction they’re in.

Major Gone’s ship is Born in a Cross-Fire Hurricane. That’s not a clue, it’s a joke. Just to be clear about that.

The crew find themselves in a village between the giant spider’s nest (“gigantarachnid” is a good word I think) and the swine swamp. In case you wondered the village is built from pig bones and treated mega-silk. They eat a lot of pork. That’s why they live there, there’s a reason, it’s not just a joke, really.

Meanwhile I’ve moved Honfleur from the estuary of the Seine to a similar river somewhere out in the galaxy. So it’s a medieval town, but it’s not, and of course has reverted back to approximately eighteenth century technology.

The giant dinosaurs covered in fungus (two big animals in this one, not sure what that’s about) are a nice simple thought experiment ecosystem. Then I ran down my list of strange ideas for the twist; if Gunn had landed here, what would have happened to bite the crew in the arse? Tunnel squid predators of course. Apologies to anyone with a fear of squids.

They move fairly swiftly in this story, visiting four planets, using the big doppelganger idea that was in my notes practically from day one of this writing project, more fungus and more dinosaurs, a town displaced and the theme park. I’m hopeful that I managed to make good on my promise that in the wake of the Wavefront the only thing that can be expected in the unexpected.

There’s also the return of Dr Perky’s Refreshing Beverage, which is sadly more popular than this series of stories.

Liner Notes 7a

This is one of the topics that would probably be better explained as a diagram rather than as a description. Of course if I could draw spaceships I’d probably have a Patreon for that rather than writing space opera. You can see the limits of my art skills here with Dr Perky and in the stories with their cover of a stylised rocket.

Cruisers obviously could take a five year mission if they wanted to. Of course.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

I Watch Films: Cars 3

The Cars series hasn’t actually done the rookie thing where the unknown comes from nothing to win before which is interesting; Cars opens with Lightning McQueen at the end of his rookie season, challenging for the championship. (Planes has, but that’s another story). SPOILERS for Cars 3 and maybe Cars and Planes I suppose.

Anyway Lightning McQueen is 11 years old now, and apparently that’s old in car years because a new generation of faster racers who use statistics and things have come from nowhere. Jackson Storm beats out McQueen. There’s talk of retirement, so McQueen goes on the road to try and get his mojo back.

It took me longer than it should to figure out the twist. This is because it was slightly bolder than I thought they would go for! Anyway this was fine, some good stunts, a joke or two, a fine lazy afternoon watch if you have a small child to entertain.

Watch This: For a fun, entertaining racing film (about shattered dreams, obsolescence and one last chance)
Don’t Watch This: If you want a world in which all animal life has been replaced by machines to make sense, as at least one character talks about growing up and going to school, and her family? Are they breeding? Or being built? Where are the new generation racers coming from? Or maybe if you hate kids cartoons.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

I Read Books: Islands of Angry Ghosts

This book comes in two parts. First the wreck and mutiny of the Dutch East India Company ship Batavia on the Abrolhos islands off Western Australia on her maiden voyage from Texel to, er, Batavia. Secondly comes the expedition led by the author, Hugh Edwards, to find and then dive onto the wreck.

The first part is quite exciting in a slightly overwrought way, taking at face value the contemporary Dutch idea that the mutiny was inspired by the heretical ideas of Torrentius. (An alternative explanation would be that the heretics were fleeing persecution, and so decided to seize the ship to finance a new life. Not that it matters, it’s still a terrible crime no matter the reason for it.) The plan, to overthrow the Commandeur when they sighted Australia (the navigational landmark that indicated they should turn north to Java) seemed to go well as the convoy was scattered in a storm, but went wrong when they ran aground.

After the most reliable men set sail in a boat to get help from Java, the mutineers send the soldiers to another island where they claim there is water though they didn’t find any. They then get to massacring anyone who isn’t on their side. However it turns out there is water on one of the northern islands, and one of the victims escapes and tells the soldiers what’s going on. Despite not having their weapons they hold out until finally a ship arrives. They warn them of the danger and the mutiny is put down.

The location of the wreck is then lost, and in the 19th century Captain Stokes misidentifies the wreck of the Zeewijk on the southern group of islands for that of the Batavia. Not until a local author Henrietta Drake-Brockman gets a copy of the logs and documents from the Netherlands, has them translated and starts a controversy does anyone think to look on the Northern group.

Hugh Edwards, diver and journalist, is interested, tries to get an expedition together, fails to find anything, goes off on some other dives, gets married, comes home to Western Australia, then some of fishermen on the islands find artefacts and he succeeds in putting a dive expedition together.

Unlike the first half with rape, murder, cannibalism etc this part is a bit more family friendly. Of course they find skeletons and the gallows, they are put in danger by sharks and weather, and their attempts to lift cannon from the bottom have mixed success, including breaking the mast that holds the winch on the borrowed naval diving boat, which puts them behind while it’s replaced with steel.

However they get a good haul of artefacts, are able to confirm some details, map the sites, and Edwards gets some good articles and this book out of it, which wins the Sir Thomas White Memorial Prize for the best work published by an Australian in 1966. So that’s nice.

Read This: For an interesting and informative book about the shipwreck, mutiny and dive archaeology.
Don’t Read This: If gruesome events aren’t your thing.

(Replica of the Batavia photo "By Malis - My own photo taken by my own camera, Public Domain, Link ")