Monday, April 27, 2009

In the Loop

Yes, I've always liked The Thick of It on TV, and yes, I'm one of the group who thinks that the general idea has survived the transfer to a two-hour expression on the cinema screen. I laughed, a lot. Whether Armando Iannucci and co.'s satirical effectiveness quite survives the use of a lot more recognisable details and incidents from (fairly) recent reality may be slightly more debatable, but I guess that this movie may be one of the more enduring and plausible memorials to the great and inglorious international political manouevres of 2003.

In opening the claustrophobic squabbling of The Thick of It out onto the international stage, Iannucci really needed a complete new cast of characters - aside from Peter Capaldi's feral Malcolm Tucker (and his simply psychotic sidekick Jamie), of course - but he's chosen to cast most of the same actors in new and slightly different roles. This may confuse anyone who paid close attention to the TV original's social dynamics, but what the heck, they're good actors. Mind you, I did wonder how someone as clueless and ineffectual as Tom Hollander's Simon Foster could ever have become a cabinet minister; I know that one of Iannucci's themes is that nobody really knows anything, but Foster barely seems able to tie up his own shoelaces.

The plot also brings into focus the key point about Malcolm; no, not the unremitting obscenity, but his status as some kind of archetype of the power of an unrelenting will. He wins because he cares about nothing except winning. He's smart, but the point is that he applies that intelligence to one purpose; he's also fearless, even if there's a touch of terror-of-the-void driving him on. A few other characters find ways to threaten him quite effectively, but they can't make him lose the plot. Most of the other characters suffer from cowardice; Chris Addison's Toby might almost be a sympathetic character if it wasn't for his childish attempts to deflect any hint of blame for anything - especially things that he's done. They're also often concerned with status or comfort, whereas it's not clear if Malcolm has a life beyond work, and he's exactly where he wants to be.

It's a terrifying idea, really - Malcolm Tucker as a Nietzschean ubermensch with more F-words - and it's maybe a small comfort that news stories of the last few weeks suggest that real spin doctors, while just as nasty as Malcolm, are a bit less competent. Likewise, not only does the thinly-disguised-Iraq plot date the movie in a slightly confusing way, but we can now at least imagine David Rasche's plain-flat-barking-mad neocon Linton Barwick out on his ear and reduced to delivering bizarre rantings to a shrinking audience of idiotic devotees. (It's just a shame it took so long.) I guess it might be interesting to see The Thick of It tackle more current specific events, but Iannucci could say that he did that better with things like The Day Today, and I suspect that when the TV series returns, it'll reset to the introverted world of the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship. Still, it'll surely be fun to see where Iannucci does go next.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Theatre: A Song at Twilight

Arts Theatre, Cambridge, 18/4/2009

Late-period Noel Coward - 1960s, in fact - but definitely Noel Coward. If a lot of it seemed to be an excuse for the two leads to stand around spitting aphorisms at each other, well, they were pretty good aphorisms, and Peter Egan and Belinda Lang spat them pretty well.

And it does have some pretensions to theme. It's hopefully not giving too much away about the plot to note that it's quite explicitly a story from very shortly before the legalization of homosexuality in Britain, which occasionally gives it the air of a period piece. One imagines that, these days, rather more of the audience will be rather more shocked by the not-a-self-portrait-honest! lead character's crappy treatment of the people he supposedly loves or who love him than by any of that stuff - and the audience audibly gasped at one of his casual jibes about the German people, although I'd guess that this was at least somewhat consciously meant as part of the revelation of his real character. To the extent that he may be a self-portrait, it's a fairly brutal one - although having the two women in the play telling him what a genius he is, for all his flaws, from time to time, might be considered dubious.

But never mind the gay stuff - what dates this for me is the revelation that a well-preserved, quite stylish lady of a certain age has no teeth, just a full set of dentures. Yay for medical progress, is what I say.

Doctor Who Easter Special 2009

So someone thinks of a whole load of incidents and scenes and images - not many of them very innovative, some of them seriously old - and then comes up with just enough plot to hold them together. It's a plot dependent on too many coincidences, naturally, but the point is to cram all those bits into an hour, not to tell a decent story, after all. Not actually the worst hour I've ever spent, I suppose, but hardly enough to sustain any mystique.

(Okay, the "guns that work!" line induced a smile. Only a very small one, though. Oh, and I now have to go with Andrew Rilstone's ideas about some characters representing the show's own fans and their foibles, which haven't always convinced me in the past; here, the metaphor just got painful.)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Recent Reading: Iron Sunrise

by Charles Stross

Having finally got around to reading Charles Stross's first novel, I was engaged enough to get hold of the follow-up/sequel. This turned out to represent a mildly curious sidestep on the part of the author - a slight but definite shift in tone and focus. I think that many people would regard it as an improvement and a case of stylistic maturation, but I didn't really take to it as much.

We're in the same universe as Singularity Sky, about which one or two things are indeed now explicitly clarified - for example, that the humans scooped up and transplanted from Earth by the whimsical not-God-honest Eschaton were moved one year back in time for every lightyear they were moved from home - and indeed, things start in the aftermath of that story. Or rather we would, except that we have to flash back a little. After a brief glimpse of one of the novel's heroines in action - an adolescent girl with a very useful invisible friend who we may remember from the earlier book - we are shown the Iron Sunrise of the title; the destruction of of the inhabited world of New Moscow by the explosion of its sun, accomplished by some sort of very advanced technology. (This destruction is depicted rather well, if perhaps with a bit of unintended glee.) Most sensible people in the setting seem to assume what many readers will think is logical; that this sort of apocalyptic-scale technology is more or less solely the province of the Eschaton, and hence that New Moscow must have angered not-God. We're also told, later in the book, that it involves causality violation, pretty much the one thing that the Eschaton prohibits, although how it's any more a violation of causality than many things which the Eschaton permits isn't clear to me. However, established readers will also know that the Eschaton, while capable of significant and violent destruction when it feels the need, is maybe more of a trickster than a destroyer at heart, and some characters who we like work for it; at the very least, it's not clear what New Moscow would or could have done to inspire such wrath. Stross has set up a puzzle.

Anyway, our attention now turns back to Rachel Mansour, agent of Earth's light-handed government, heroine of Singularity Sky, and sometime kickass righteous super-woman of a type rather common in recent genre fiction. (At least she's less enthusiastic about killing people she doesn't approve of than, say, many of Warren Ellis's creations.) After a brief bit of bureaucratic comedy of the sort that Stross found a better home for in the early "Laundry" stories, Rachel briefly reasserts her heroic status by dealing with an insane nuclear-armed performance artist (yes, really), and then sets off, husband-from-the-earlier-book in tow, to deal with the big plot.

As this may suggest, Iron Sunrise features one of those cross-cutting, multi-protagonist structures that do so often appear in modern genre thrillers. Given their popularity, I assume that many people must like them, but I just find them a bit tiresome. Certainly, they are associated more with thrillers than with mysteries, and this book soon proves more interested in the how and the gosh than the who or the why; the maguffin of the central plot isn't so much the knowledge of who killed New Moscow as it is access to the command codes for some relativistic deterrent weapons which were launched in the wake of new Moscow's destruction, and which will kill a lot more people if not stopped. Someone is killing the diplomats who can issue a recall... But even the identity of that killer isn't as important as sorting out the practical problem, as it seems.

The use of the multi-thread stucture here could be seen as Stross showing off how he's in command of his resources, but I think that he's lost something along the way. All the hard work fitting the thriller plot together certainly loses much of the darkly satirical humour of which Stross is certainly sometimes capable, Rachel's earliest scenes aside.

And while the multiplicity is handled fairly well, there are glitches. For example, we soon meet another of his plot's heroes, a "journalist" of another popular recent-genre-fiction type. Although he seems to embody the setting's manifestation of the London Times, he owes much more to Hunter S. Thompson than William Howard Russell; most of his "reporting" consists of furiously angry op-ed pieces in which the F-word features prominently. However, after this appearance, the character disappears for long stretch, as Stross evidently can't think of much to do with him until he's needed for a couple of specific purposes. Still, he does provide an introduction to the book's leading proximate villains, the ReMastered. These look at first like cartoon Nazis, singing patriotic songs in bars and being blond; they are soon shown to be much more serious Nazis, with a penchant for concentration camps and generally brutal dictatorship; then they are revealed to be something a more original and distinctly creepy, ruthless Nietzschean-Teilhardian posthumanists with a vicious fondness for applied ultratech neurosurgery.

And so the various characters and threads move towards each other and an eventual showdown on a big, lush interstellar liner, with some gunplay and explosions along the way. I'm not convinced by some of these elite secret agents, lethal special forces types, and high-powered journalists, though; many of them seem amazingly ignorant about things that one might expect them to have studied very carefully, and not just so that the reader can be subjected to useful info dumps, while a potentially crucial (and deeply implausible) detail of the assassinations of the diplomats simply goes ignored by everyone except the half-alert reader. Characters who should know better also seem notably sloppy about searching prisoners for concealed weapons. Still, Stross manages some fairly clever twists and turns before the story ends.

Which it does rather abruptly, leaving only one significant extra twist for the epilogue. But several of the mysteries which the book threw up despite itself remain unsolved, and the solutions which it offers for others are sometimes tentative and unconvincing. Even the Eschaton seems uncertain what's going on, even at the end. In short, Stross seems to have left a lot for a very possible sequel or two - but no such book has appeared since this one, in 2004. If he's given up on the setting, fair enough; I don't believe in whipping authors into bored sequel-grinding just to answer anyone's need for neatness. But that doesn't make this book complete. The smart ideas earn it points for effort, but the execution doesn't match the inspiration.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Monsters vs. Aliens 3D

Put me down as slow, but I hadn't actually seen a movie in 3D in the cinema until today. Okay, I admit it, I'm impressed - the technology works, the polarising glasses fit okay over my ordinary correcting pair, and the film-makers used it for some engaging effects. And to give these particular creators credit, they didn't over-use it; after a ball on an elastic string jumped out of the screen early on, just for show, there were few gratuitous attempts to get into the audience's face.

Monsters vs. Aliens, by the way, is fun in its own right. It's not the greatest movie of the decade - it's not even especially high in the CGI animated fantasy comedy field, although that's a tough field to compete in by now - but to me, this stuff is still breathtaking and astonishing on a purely technical level, while allowing a lot of smart, genre-savvy, doubtless rather geeky writers to create scripts of a degree of cleverness which, offered for a standard Hollywood live-action movie, would surely be dumbed down to idiocy by the third draft. There was at least one moment in this one where I was thinking "oh dear, this is the spinoff video game hook", not all the jokes were as clever as they should have been - the obligatory during-the-closing-credits bit was weak - and I guess that all the '50s monster movie references will just confuse the heck out of the kids who get towed along for an Easter holiday treat. But hey, giant robot vs. Japanese movie monster and 50' woman as they demolish the Golden Gate bridge and a cockroach-headed mad scientist with the voice of Hugh Laurie attempts sabotage in support. In 3D. You get your money's worth.

Later Thoughts: It's probably going to be far too easy to offer Freudian or/and feminist readings of this movie, you know. Female lead suffers shattering unexpected experience on her wedding day, and is left staggered and in need of wiping down; suddenly discovers that she has been transformed by this, but far more significantly, others' perceptions of her have been transformed for the worse; when she attempts to fight back against this problem, she is subdued by the male establishment using drugs and brute force, and trapped in a home environment not of her own design; finds herself as the voice of calm rationality to a group of smaller individuals who have even greater problems comprehending their social condition, but who offer her unconditional love...

Willful contentiousness aside, it really does seem to be the case that Susan is transformed by the plot of this movie from a bride to the mother-figure to a group of child-figures (the hungry one, the precociously bright one, the aggressive one, and the big quiet one) while neatly sidestepping any tiresome need for a marital relationship, given that the available husband is actually a jerk. Hmm. The critics kept saying that this was a film for kids, but even the overt heavy 1950s monster movie referencing made this debatable; if you start looking for
messages, things get worse.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Expand, Contract (4)

For those who are keeping count - I've now delivered final drafts of all four of the new Transhuman Space: Personnel Files manuscripts on which I've been working.

Other stuff is in hand, but not contracted yet...

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Local Eating (2)

With the excuse of my birthday and all, we finally got around to trying Restaurant Alimentum for lunch last Thursday. (It's a bit of a walk from our usual haunts in the centre of town.) This is the Cambridge eatery that's had the admiring comments in the national press recently, and yes, it does generally live up to them.

The decor's generally innocuously moderne (black, white, and red, some occasional vaguely Art Deco touches especially in the loos), and the portion sizes are restrained enough that I managed a three-course lunch without feeling at all stressed; the execution, which is of course the actual point, is good. The starter which both of us chose - thin slices of venison with apple and hazelnut and beetroot - was especially worth trying; I enjoyed my fillet and belly of pork main course, while Angela was very happy with her green leek risotto; then we hit the chocolate and apple mille feuille, which was chocolate-y, apple-y, and featured mille feuille which cut with the edge of a spoon without flaking into crumbs...

Given that the place also does a sensible fixed-price menu, I can see us getting back there sometimes. Especially now the weather is improving so the walk out from the centre won't feel like a risk.