Music Review: The Bifrost Incident

I don’t often write about music, because I’m not very good at it.

I’m making an exception for The Bifrost Incident, partly because I don’t actually have anything else to write about, and partly because it is, of course, very good.

The Bifrost Incident is the fourth album from Oxford-based steampunk band The Mechanisms, who perform as a band of immortal space pirates swaggering their way through the universe aboard their starship Aurora.

The Mechanisms tell stories, in a mixture of spoken word and folk-rock-inflected song. Their first album, Once Upon a Time (In Space), riffs on Anglo-American fairytale; Ulysses Dies at Dawn is based on Greek mythology, rendered in noirish jazz; High Noon Over Camelot is a mashup of Arthurian legend with a spaghetti Western sound and narrative aesthetic.

The Bifrost Incident is based on Norse mythology, which I am not familiar with at all. It collides with something more modern later on, but I won’t spoil that.

The framing schtick is a little different this time around: instead of narrating the story, the Mechanisms are acting it, verbatim. The story’s narrator (voiced by the Aurora‘s definitely-first-mate Jonny d’Ville) is Inspector Second Class Leofrisyr Edda (that’s a very rough guess at spelling, by the way, and is probably wrong) of the New Midgard Transport Police, assigned to investigate the mysterious reappearance of a train, the Ratatosk Express, which disappeared eighty years ago with the entire ruling class of Asgard aboard on its maiden voyage through man-made wormhole the Bifrost.

Musically, it’s moved a little away from folk-rock into seventies prog rock: a bit Jethro Tull/Genesis, a bit Led Zeppelin, at least in the musical set-pieces between the narration, which is still counterpointed by rippling piano/violin harmony.

It works best as a piece of storytelling, though, grounding what is by the end of the album genuinely chilling cosmic horror in personal tragedy – both that of the gradually unravelling Edda and that of the doomed lovers Loki and Sigyn (both female in this rendition). The music builds tension throughout the story and then breaks it, perfectly, in “End of the Line” (which made me cry) and “Terminus” (which made me want to put Christmas music on and dance about madly to try and shake off the horror of it. But in a good way).

It’s definitely their most pessimistic album; the first three may have had downbeat endings but there was always a thread of survival, a bit of hope that life would go on. Here, the only survivors are the Mechanisms themselves, the amoral tellers of the tale. The witness-bearers, perhaps. I think there’s something interesting going on with the ways in which Bifrost plays with its various framing devices (parts of the tale are taken from the Ratatosk‘s black box as Edda tries to work out what went on aboard the train) and its multiple levels of narration (Jonny narrating Edda narrating the black box).

All of which, as usual, is a tortuous way of saying: I liked it. You should listen to it. (At least, you should on January 29th, when it’s released to non-Kickstarters.)

Film Review: Serenity

This review contains spoilers.

My brain keeps sort of sliding off Serenity, Joss Whedon’s filmic sequel to Firefly, which I think illustrates nicely the level of canonicity I mentally ascribe to it.

Plot-wise, it’s essentially an embellished retread of Objects in Space. A brutal, nameless Alliance operative hunts the Serenity in an attempt to regain River, who, it turns out, has been subliminally programmed to be an equally brutal killing machine. She’s also psychic (as established in Objects in Space; it’s to Whedon’s credit that this decidedly fantastical device never quite destroys our suspension of disbelief), and has been inadvertently exposed to one of the Alliance’s most terrible secrets, which involves an outer planet called Miranda. The rest of the film sees Mal and the gang travel to Miranda, discover the secret and attempt to broadcast it to the ‘verse – all while evading the Operative.

There are obvious themes here which carry over from the late episodes of the series; in particular a kind of discussion of the social construction of the other. In particular, Whedon picks up on the idea that Jubal Early is weaponised by the very Alliance which constructed him as Other in the character of the Operative, who is quite literally only a tool (nameless, pastless, hobbyless); never is he granted full personhood. (Is it troubling that both Jubal Early and the Operative are black? Or is this a wry comment on processes of marginalisation that look like acceptance?) The problem with the Alliance, the film suggests, is that it sees people as units to be controlled and used; not as full, rounded individuals with social links and histories. And this social construct is a source of othering: one of the great revelations of Serenity is that the Reavers, the bands of crazed spacefarers carrying out unspeakable acts of violence, murder and rape on unwary spacecraft and outer colonies, were created by an Alliance experiment in crowd control gone horribly wrong. So not only does this othering harm the othered; it harms the society it’s supposed to protect and keep stable.

And though this is an interesting (and unexpected) tack for what is essentially a sci-fi blockbuster to take, my feeling is that Serenity elides a lot of the complexity of the world of Firefly. Firefly’s Alliance has never really felt like a dystopia, as it does in Serenity, and I think that’s one of the show’s strengths: it looks at social processes that happen in our own world, on planet Earth, and unrolls them on a slightly different canvas. Firefly takes place in a world in which evils are made worse by oppressive government; Serenity takes place in a world in which all evils are created by Secrit Gub’mint Conspiracies. Firefly‘s world is one in which heroes and villains are just a hairsbreadth apart. Firefly is a show in which small and contingent victories are the only victories you can hope to gain. Serenity is a film in which large victories are the only victories that exist.

There are complexities to Serenity, it’s true: the Alliance is not brought down by the broadcasting of Miranda’s secret, only weakened; beloved characters are, notoriously, killed; Mal and Inara’s romantic tension remains unresolved. And these darknesses are, again, unusual to see in an SF film of this type. I liked Serenity. I had a Firefly hangover for about a week after I saw it. I just think that the kinds of stories Firefly told are not the kinds of stories that are particularly compatible with the explosive demands of Hollywood film studios.

Firefly Review: The Message

“Someone’s carrying a bullet for you right now, don’t even know it. The trick is, die of old age before it finds you.”

Joss Whedon and Tim Minear

The Message is the twelfth episode of Firefly, which means we’re getting very close to the end now (sad face). The crew of Serenity pick up their mail at a space station (as you do, I guess), and receive an enormous crate addressed to Mal and Zoe. The crate, it turns out, contains the body of Tracey, a young man who once served with Mal and Zoe during the war. The crate also contains a recorded message from the dead man asking the pair to return his body to his home planet.

The plot thickens as an Alliance officer begins pursuing Serenity for illegally sending dead people through the post, and as Tracey wakes up from being dead, having taken drugs to make him seem dead in order to escape a dodgy deal involving smuggled internal organs.

Like many of the show’s episodes, The Message is a study of community. Much like the problematic Trash, it contrasts the camaraderie of Serenity with the loneliness of those outside, complicating the dynamic by placing Tracey in the position of having lost a community – not only his home community to which he tries, futilely, to return, but also the community he finds in wartime, alongside the heroic Mal and Zoe who always look out for their comrades.

The episode hinges upon Tracey’s forgetting of that last point. As the Serenity‘s crew flee from the pursuing Alliance craft, their escape looking ever more unlikely, Tracey overhears Shepherd Book and Mal discussing a plan to stop and allow the Alliance to board. Seeing in this a betrayal, Tracey threatens various members of the crew, and is shot for his efforts by Zoe. What he hasn’t realised is that the plan to allow the Alliance onboard is a ruse: Book confronts the officer with an accusation of illegal trading on the side, and, reluctantly, the officer leaves the ship. The tragedy is, of course, that in trying to protect himself at the cost of others Tracey has in fact doomed himself.

The episode, then, is in part about the fracturing of communities. He is unable to return meaningfully either to his home community or to the community aboard Serenity because he has ceased to think like a member of a community; like a true capitalist, he puts his own good above everyone else’s (see also the self-seeking Alliance officer). His fatal misunderstanding of the situation aboard Serenity stems exactly from this: an individualist, his worldview no longer coincides with that of Serenity‘s crew.

What troubled me, I suppose, about this episode is that this rather schematic approach to the idea of community, clearly supposed to lionise the mutually supporting crew of Serenity, skirts around something of a moral vacuum. Mal and Zoe’s actions, offended as they are that Tracey might think them betrayers, comes across as rather high-handed; that they fail to explain the situation to Tracey (with Mal instead choosing to get angry and dismissive) is not treated as a failing at all. The issue here is that Whedon has built us a world in which betrayal is not unexpected or uncommon, and Tracey’s reaction is, even among the crew of Serenity (remember Ariel?), not unreasonable. So what should feel tragic and terrible in fact seems only manipulative, the show falling back on lazy cliches of heroism (as it very rarely does) to simplify what is in fact a morally grey situation.

The Message was, then, one of my least favourite Firefly episodes: I felt more annoyed by it than anything else. However – the show is more than the sum of its parts, thank goodness, and so I look forward to the next of Serenity‘s adventures.

Review: A Darker Shade of Magic

“The bodies in my floor all trusted someone. Now I walk on them to tea.”

V. E. Schwab

darker_shade_of_magic_a-v_e_schwab-30490786-1084173150-frntlI enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic.

It felt utterly fresh to me, a kind of story I’ve never read before, and I enjoyed that after the woeful reading year that was 2015. The novel posits the existence of four parallel Londons, sitting next to each other like the pages of a book, in the classic parallel-worlds metaphor: Grey London, our London (in its Victorian/Vaguely Steampunk manifestation), utterly without magic; Red London, soaked in magic, a near-utopia where most people seem to live comfortably and where wonders abound; White London, almost drained of magic, whose inhabitants scrabble for dregs of power, killing where they can; and Black London. Nobody talks about Black London; all we know is that the magic there somehow went bad, that it began to eat its people up, and as a result of this catastrophe the walls of the worlds were sealed to contain the infection of Black London. Now, only the Antari, a dying breed of magic-user, can travel between the Londons, carrying messages between their rulers. Our Hero, Kell, is one of the last of the Antari, clandestinely and illegally smuggling trinkets for collectors between the worlds, and on what seems like a routine mission to White London he runs across a terrible relic from Black London. Most of the novel follows his efforts to get this relic back to Black London, with the help of Lila, a Grey London cross-dressing thief who is also awesome.

It’s difficult to think about Schwab’s closed-off worlds, her quarantined and unspeakable Black London, its baleful influence seeping out into the dystopian White London, without reading some element of environmental catastrophe into the novel (especially when you’ve spent your lunch break reading a Strange Horizons article about petrofiction). Magic in A Darker Shade is a power source denied to all but a few (the inhabitants of Red London) who live in a kind of energy surplus, untouched by the plight of the worlds around them: White London is a nightmare of cruelty and greed, struggling to survive in an energy crisis, Black London has imploded through dependency on magic, and Grey Londoners like Lila are subjected to poverty and inequality. (“Be glad for what you have and who you have because you may want for things but you need nothing,” the impoverished Lila rages at Kell when he complains about the malaise he feels in Red London’s palace.) Red London feels like a utopia, an oasis; but uneasy gaps tug at the edge of it, things which its inhabitants refuse to talk about. Kell feels that he is valued only as a generator of the power the city needs to maintain its superiority, and the text is always queasily aware of the unspoken fact that Red London effectively abandoned White London to its fate in order to keep its own magic users safe.

The symbolism of the world-building works, I think, on several levels simultaneously. First, we can read the sequence of Londons as a kind of chronological sequence of energy usage: Grey London the pre-industrial, blithely ignorant world; Red London the utopian, energy-rich state enjoying the height of its development; White London, in the throes of an energy crisis; Black London, post-apocalyptic, dead, destroyed through excess of energy use. At the same time, there’s a synchronic political dimension to the world-building: Red London’s self-imposed isolation is a register of the West’s deliberate blindness to the inevitability of oil scarcity, to the fates of White London and Black London, even when those fates are laid out in front of it. There is, of course, a nugget of Anglocentricism buried here, which is why London is the common denominator between Schwab’s four worlds, as opposed to, say, Cairo or Tokyo or even Paris: the privileged West refuses to look beyond its own needs to those of the disadvantaged who will be disproportionately affected by climate change.

As I said: a book that feels fresh, a violent book that casts environmental and energy crisis into an entirely new light, which is what good fantasy does. Narratively, it’s also a cracking story with a stirringly awesome heroine, and you should read it.

Firefly Review: War Stories

“No matter how ugly it gets, you two always come back. With the stories.

Cheryl Cain

War Stories is the *checks Wikipedia* tenth episode of Firefly, and, as the name suggests, it’s an episode at least partly about a particular kind of storytelling.

The story goes like this:

Wash is jealous of Mal’s relationship with Zoe: he feels threatened by the fact that the pair always return from their latest mission with a tale of camaraderie and merry slaughter, and by their long history, rooted in the war between the Alliance and the Good Guys. Accordingly, he demands to be taken on Mal’s next mission instead of Zoe, determined partly to keep Zoe and Mal apart and partly to experience a war story (geddit?) first hand.

Of course, this backfires horribly: Wash and Mal are kidnapped during the course of the mission (the sale of some of the medicine they stole in Ariel, I think) by Very Very Bad Man Niska, whom they pissed off in The Train Job by refusing to steal some other medicine from a struggling outpost. Niska proceeds to torture them ‘orribly, and the crew of Serenity is obviously required to Go and Rescue Them Heroically.

So. Part of what Joss Whedon is trying to do in War Stories, I think, is complicate our understanding of narratives of violence. The premise for the episode – Wash gets more than he bargained for when he insists on doing something whose reality he doesn’t fully understand – is obvious enough, as is his narrative punishment for his unfounded jealousy. It’s no accident that the episode occasionally makes for uncomfortable viewing, as Niska devises ever more ‘orrible torture methods: the point is not only “be careful what you wish for” (that old and much-told chestnut) but also something about the sanitisation of the war story, the too-comfortable position tales of second-hand violence occupy in today’s heroism-centred culture. War Stories seeks to estrange the war story, to restore to it the horror and the nastiness of real lived experience, which is bleached out by the ex post factum telling.

So far, so obvious: this is not a new point. What is new – or, at least, new in this kind of narrative – is the way Whedon handles the other third-hand cultural stereotype of the episode: the Triangle of Jealousy so familiar from endless soap operas. My favourite scene in the whole episode is the one in which Zoe, having collected all the money she can find, marches aboard Niska’s space station and demands her men back. Niska (being a Very Very Bad Man) claims that she’s only brought enough money for one of them, and makes her choose.

Here’s the thing: Niska, and the weight of Western cultural narrative behind him, is expecting Zoe to hesitate. He’s expecting her to blanch, to cry, to break down as she faces an Impossible Choice between two men she lurves romantically.

She doesn’t, because her choice is already made; was already made, in hindsight, from the moment she stepped onto Niska’s space station. She chooses Wash, even before Niska’s finished asking the question. It’s another wrongfooting move on Whedon’s part, and a more effective one because it’s genuinely unexpected, and yet, if we read it in the context of actual lived experience instead of through the lens of troped cultural narrative, it makes perfect sense: he’s her husband, he’s being tortured ‘orribly; how could we, or Niska, think that she would throw him away because of a bit of petty jealousy, a storyline that has lasted all of twenty minutes against four hundred minutes of relationship-building? Because stories (patriarchal stories; Zoe’s reaction to Niska’s attempt at psychological torture has, of course, feminist undertones) are powerful, and stories are also lies.

There are other bits of clever self-awareness like this one: in the inevitable firefight that ends the episode, Kaylee, engineer extraordinaire, finds herself unable to shoot anyone (heroes don’t have to be murderers), and when River hits three stormtroopers bad guys with her eyes closed, Kaylee is horrified (because shooting people is scary, not Matrix-awesome, you violence-addicted viewer). And when Mal comes face-to-face with his torturer, Zoe spouts the “this is something he has to do on his own” line, only to be contradicted by Mal himself: heroes need all the help they can get!

The issue with all of this, as I’m sure you’ve already spotted, is that the episode never actually manages to escape the idealised shadow of the cultural narrative it’s trying to subvert. The fact is that Firefly as a show inevitably revolves around the idea of camaraderie, of merry and inconsequential slaughter, of violence-made-desirable; which is only to say that Firefly is at its heart and incontrovertibly a war story. For all its shock value, the violence of War Stories is, actually, sanitised and strangely hermetic: even when Mal loses his ear all Simon needs to do is sew it back on. There are no consequences to any of this; having seen the next episode, it seems that Mal and Wash recover from their terrible experience physically and psychologically unscathed, and Zoe and Wash’s marriage is completely unchanged. It’s a story about the sanitisation of violence which itself sanitises that violence, a tale about how lived experience is attenuated by its own telling. Perhaps War Stories, on its own terms, can’t escape the war story; perhaps this, ultimately, is Whedon’s point.

What we have, in any case, is a smartly self-aware war story, more interested in motivation than the typical war story and certainly more entertaining. What I’m trying to say, I think, is that I enjoyed it (as I’ve enjoyed every Firefly episode), and that it’s more aware of its flaws than most other entries in the genre, but that that fact doesn’t, ultimately, balance out those flaws.

Review: Mariel of Redwall

“Leaves, berries, roots ‘n’ fruits are fine, if y’know which are the right ones an’ which ones won’t make a body sick or even kill yer. But we don’t!”

Brian Jacques

200px-Mariel_of_Redwall

I used to re-read Brian Jacques’ Redwall series endlessly as a child, which may have been something to do with the endlessly hypnotic descriptions of food. Re-reading it as an adult, however, and an adult fresh out of an English literature degree, is rather unsettling, as is all too often the case with beloved childhood favourites.

If you’ve not encountered the Redwall series before (and surprisingly few people have), it’s essentially a bunch of tales featuring anthropomorphic rodents, centred on the idyllic Redwall Abbey, a sandstone building in quiet woodland where the Brothers and Sisters live in harmony with nature and each other. They also eat lots of food.

Mariel of Redwall is the sixth chronologically in the series, although in all but a few cases it’s not really necessary to read them chronologically, and their publication sequence is complicated. It tells the story of a young mouse who finds herself washed up onto a strange shore with no memory of where or who she is. Rescued by a trio of friendly hares from the Long Patrol, a regiment that guards the shores of Mossflower country, she’s taken to Redwall Abbey, where she learns (through a slightly disturbing combination of drugs and dusty old riddles) that her real name is Mariel, and that her father Joseph is the captive of a tyrannical searat named Gabool the Wild. She vows revenge on Gabool, and together with a ka-tet of Abbey youngsters, she sets off on a Quest to the subtly-named Terramort Isle.

It is exactly as melodramatic as it sounds.

The issue with the novel, though, and to some extent all the Redwall novels, is that it finds it difficult to reconcile the idyllic unity of Abbey life with its need to entertain its young readers by having its characters whack people in the face on a fairly regular basis. Mariel of Redwall somewhat clumsily tries to open up a discussion about violence, and when it is justifiable to use it; the answer pretty consistently seems to be “only in defence of peace” (ironically). So Mariel can whack a snake on the head because it’s trying to eat her friend, but she can’t kill it because it has a “right to life”. Surprisingly, she doesn’t apply the same moral reasoning to the marauding searats who populate the novel (and searats are always evil, or greedy, or cruel. Move along, no racial stereotyping to be seen here): it is not only OK to whack them  in the face, it is also OK to kill them in great swathes, because otherwise they’d kill or destroy other creatures. I wonder how they thought the snake was going to feed itself.

It’s easy to read this as simply bad writing, but actually I feel like there’s something much more ideological going on, and it has to do with all those gorgeous vegetarian banquets Jacques writes so well. There’s a subplot in Mariel which sees a crew of searats attacking Redwall Abbey, because they want to live “off the fat of the land” as the Redwallers do – that is, they see the peace and plenty of Redwall and assume that it’s easy to do that. They fail to realise, to their detriment, that living sustainably off the fat of the land frequently means postponing an easy meal now for the sake of a larger or a better one later; that it means not pillaging all the low-hanging fruit for miles around until there’s none left, but knowing how and where plants grow, and what berries are safe to eat, and how the weather patterns work. It means knowing the land around you. The searats favour charred meat, and their hunting methods clearly don’t take into account what the forest around them can bear; the Redwallers put on vast and lavish vegetarian banquets, representing a more significant investment in the land and a knowledge of nature. It’s OK to kill searats not because they’d kill other living creatures per se, but because they have the potential to lay entire lands to waste; they have no restraint, and they use slaves to do their work for them, so that they’re separated from the land. It’s not OK, by contrast, to kill the snake, because the snake is working in balance with its environment, staying within its territory and eating only what the land around it can supply. Moreover, there are overtones to the narrative that suggest that the searats are actually destroying themselves – their lack of knowledge of the earth means that they poison themselves; their slaves rise up and attack them. It means that the moral burden of killing them is somewhat removed – because it’s their own fault.

Obviously, this is very dodgy thinking indeed. “Oft evil will shall evil mar” – to quote Tolkien – is a very attractive doctrine, but if you’re not careful it can lead quite quickly to essentialism, which is never a good or even an interesting place to be. Unfortunately, it’s where the Redwall books do tend to end up: on a binary between killing and farming, rat and mouse, Good and Evil. I’ve heard the series described as “vegetarian propaganda”, which, disturbingly, feels pretty much on the money. And because Jacques, unfortunately, has little skill as an actual wordsmith, it all comes across as preachy.

Will I be venturing further into the Redwall series? I’m not sure. It was an interesting exercise, but for the time being I’ll leave the mice behind. But I suspect I’ll be back for the banquets one day.

Firefly: Bushwhacked

“When you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

Friedrich Nietzche

OK, so the Internet lied to me. It’s this episode, episode 3, that’s called Bushwhacked; episode 2 should have been The Train Job. I went back and changed it. Damn you, Internet.

We’re back with Firefly, by the way.

So Bushwhacked I liked, despite all the ‘orrible violence (there is much ‘orrible violence). Our ka-tet finds an abandoned spacecraft drifting in the endless black, and promptly decides to rob it, obviously. But something terrible has happened on board, and it’s pretty inconvenient that an Alliance space station has just rocked up, too, since the crew of the Serenity have reasons to avoid the law.

Bushwhacked makes a desultory effort at being a kind of ghost story – River wanders around muttering about voices while the crew explores an uncannily empty spacecraft – but this is difficult to sustain in a world so obviously non-supernatural. There’s only one thing that can have happened there, and everyone knows it, including the audience. No, the episode is good for what happens after the inevitable discovery of ‘orrible violence: capture by the Alliance, the after-effects of torture, the testing of the crew’s loyalty. There’s a great sequence in which Serenity‘s crew is interviewed by Alliance officers; the camera cuts between characters, showing up a number of different responses to questioning – hostility, confidence, openness, silence – while also pointing up what links them: loyalty to each other. It’s a fairly common technique in, for example, police procedurals, but while those tend to use it for revealing information, this is a way of exploring character and motive. The episode is strong in this respect: none of the crew is incompetent, but they all deal with stressful situations differently.

It doesn’t quite measure up to the first episode – there’s a disappointing example of the kind of suspense building (will Mal betray Simon and River? Of course not, but we have to think it) that gets subverted so well in the first episode – but it’s still good. Great, in fact. Why are there only 14 episodes of this?

L-space news: It’s Fall of Sauron Day today – or, for the pedantic among you, Tolkien Reading Day. I traumatised myself reading the very affecting “Leaf by Niggle”, which I can recommend as a very short, very lovely story if you’re looking for some lunch-break Tolkien.

The Scar

“What I do now, I do for me.”

China Mieville

So I’ve finished my first book of 2015, which means I get to start another spreadsheet, and write the first Book Review of the year. Which is all very exciting.

I think I’m going to cheat slightly today and cross-post my review from Booklikes, because it says pretty much everything I want to say about The Scar. Here goes:

For my first finished read of the year, The Scar is…not too shabby. As an indication of the reading year to come, it’s pretty darn good.

As Mieville’s second Bas-Lag novel, it’s formally a follow-up to Perdido Street Station, although it’s not a sequel in any usual sense. Its protagonist, Bellis Coldwine, does flee the grim, repressive, industrial city of New Crobuzon (think Ankh-Morpork but real, as opposed to a place for jokes to happen) as a direct result of the events of the first novel; but reading The Scar does not really require any knowledge of Perdido Street Station.

The Scar is, firstly, a novel of the sea. Fleeing her home city on the Terpsichoria, a ship bound for the new colony of Nova Esperium, Bellis, along with the rest of the ship, is captured by pirates. But these are not just any pirates: they are agents of Armada, a floating city which lives by piracy and theft, off what is stolen on the high seas. And Armada has a daring plan involving tremendous magical forces.

The Scar is also, then, a novel about remaking and adaptation. Armada is a city in flux, forever being recreated by the new citizens, the new ships, that it takes into itself. Its rules and laws are mutable, negotiable; its customs change with every new arrival, and existing cultures and customs change within this melting pot as they come into contact with each other. The Remade of New Crobuzon, criminals and slaves in their home city, are greeted as worthy citizens. Characters, too, remake themselves: Tanner Sack becomes a fish-man, the better to swim in the waters that he loves; Shekel, former gang leader, learns to read; Silas Fennec becomes Simon Fench. Finally, the novel itself is a thing which constantly remakes itself: what you think is happening quickly comes to mean something else; perspective is deeply unreliable; plot and motivation is as unconstant as the sea which carries Armada.

It’s a novel about stories. More specifically, it’s a novel about how stories may tell us some of the truth, but never all of it. How they mislead and deceive and lie, how they are used to mislead and deceive and lie, time and time again, but still we listen to them. How stories use us; and how we allow them to. It’s not a novel for those who need closure, this: ends are left loose, mysteries left unexplained. All we are given are possibilities. Paths the truth may take; or may not. We can choose to read this as negative – as misleading, as confusing, as irritatingly inconclusive – or as positive – as an expression of openness, of potentiality.

I love reading Mieville’s novels, because they are that rare and fascinating thing, fantasy that thinks, that exploits exactly the possibilities of speculative fiction. If the races that populate his world occasionally veer into the ridiculous – we meet, after all, humanoid fish, humanoid crustaceans, humanoid mosquitoes, even – then that’s almost beside the point. The Bas-Lag novels are not realism. They are not explorations of what is; they are explorations of potential, of possibility. They ask “what if?”, not in order to find out something about the question, as hard SF tends to do, but in order to find out something about the questioner, which is what art does.

It’s true that, plot-wise, The Scar is weaker than Perdido Street Station. It has little of the claustrophobic density of feeling of its predecessor, although its graphic power to shock is still there, and the lack of answers we get is frustrating, on a narrative level, whatever its literary effect. On the other hand, I loved inhabiting the unique and vivid world of Armada, even if only for a little while. And those deceitful stories? Well, I wouldn’t give them up for a big clock.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

“Why is the rum always gone?”

Pirates of the Caribbean

SPOILER ALERT! THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL.

So it’s getting towards the end of the summer term here at University, which means it’s Ill-Advised Movie Marathon season. Having, with the timely help of the Circumlocutor, narrowly escaped a viewing of The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug (which, at three hours seven minutes, is a marathon all by itself), I was inveigled by the University Gang into watching the marginally less mindless Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy back-to-back (we didn’t actually manage the third one, but that’s another story). I’ve posted about Curse of the Black Pearl elsewhere, so here I will be sharing with you the kettle of delights which is Dead Man’s Chest.

It turns out that I have not seen Dead Man’s Chest nearly as often as I’ve seen the other two, because I spent at least half of the two-and-a-half-hour fandango going “What? I don’t remember this bit…What? Isn’t this Star Wars?…What? Why is this happening?”

And so on.

I mention this because the film begins with an interrupted wedding which I remember not at all. Will and Elizabeth, you see, are arrested by the dastardly new Commodore for piracy (you know, all the stuff they don’t get punished for at the end of Pearl). The Commodore offers Will a bargain: a royal pardon in exchange for Jack Sparrow’s famous compass that doesn’t point north (’cause it’s magic, obviously). Will goes swashbuckling off across the seas so that Elizabeth doesn’t have to be in prison any more, Elizabeth somehow magically escapes from said prison and goes round pointing pistols at people and stowing away on ships, and Jack, in a completely unrelated plot thread, is busy trying to escape the notice of Davy Jones and His Famous Kraken, having once accepted an unspecified but almost certainly unwise bargain from Jones involving the Black Pearl.

And this continues for two and a half hours. There is backstabbing and swordfighting and gun-wielding; there are unlikely misses, questionable tactics, musical instruments in strange places, and curiously ineffectual monsters. There are so many backroom (backcabin?) deals and underhanded agreements that it becomes hard to remember who’s betrayed whom and what exactly it is everyone is so cross about. In fact, the primary objective of most of the main characters seems to be dragging the whole affair out as long as possible.

I’m not saying it wasn’t fun. It was. It was fun to watch it with my friends, saying things like “Why isn’t he dead yet?” and “That’s a terrible bowline, I could tie a better one in my sleep”  and throwing metaphorical popcorn at the screen. It was fun because it was rubbish and everyone had seen it and we could all laugh at its terribleness, which is mostly the point of Ill-Advised Movie Marathon season.

But it is, objectively, quite bad: unfocused, illogical, over-complicated and suffering from a bad case of Middle Story Syndrome. There’s no resolution, only a cliffhanger. There’s no explanation, only a promise of more to come. There’s no story, only a plot, and a bad one at that.

The Breakfast Club

“We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.”

The Breakfast Club

First up, I’ve been listening to this all day and it’s awesome. STEAMPUNK FOLK FAIRY-TALE IN SPACE and ALL THE FEELS. Also, really catchy tunes.

Anyway. This is what IMDb has to say about eighties high school film The Breakfast Club:

A diverse group of high schoolers forced to spend detention on a Saturday in the library. Forced to make the best of their circumstances, they learn to understand each other and discover that in spite of their initial differences, they actually share many common feelings and problems.

To which my response was, “Really? We’re watching a Disney film?”

Actually, The Breakfast Club could not be less like a Disney film. It is, in fact, an extremely realist, highly psychologically developed story in which nothing actually happens.

I’m serious. Five teenagers sit in a library, argue, smoke, hide from the teacher, sleep and get bored.

And not one of them – not even the nerdy one – even thinks to pick up a book.

That’s not really the point, though.

I wouldn’t be surprised if The Breakfast Club had started off life as a play. It has that kind of feel to it: static, very dialogue-focused and character-driven. There aren’t any goodies or baddies, not really, just people who each do good things and bad things. Your sympathies shift as the film moves on. It’s actually rather compelling, despite the lack of action.

In fact, it was all rather awesome, until about the last five minutes, when Sports Guy decides that he quite likes Basket-Case Girl…but only after she gets a makeover and completely changes her character, of course.

NO.

THIS IS NOT OKAY.

In a film whose entire message is pointing towards “it’s OK to be yourself, because we’re all, ultimately, human”, it really seems contradictory (not to mention annoying) to then say “oh, but, by the way, you actually have to conform because otherwise NO ONE WILL LIKE YOU. EVER.”

As you can probably tell from all the capitals, this is all making me quite ragey, so I’m going to stop. Essentially, The Breakfast Club is mostly a terrific and thought-provoking film. It’s just a shame it has to fall into the Grease Trap right at the last hurdle.