When Gravity Fails, by George Alec Effinger (1987)

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

220px-WhenGravityFailsBantamSpectra1988The universe of the science-fiction mystery crossover is smaller than other crossover genres, and I’m not sure why. As I’ve noticed in the past, just about any other genre can easily piggyback on top of the basic carrier wave of the mystery plotline. A crime is committed, a detective investigates, and the crime is solved; it doesn’t matter if it’s a historical mystery or a romantic mystery, a young adult mystery or a spy mystery, the mystery provides the basic plot structure and the other superimposed genre is what attracts the reader.

I suppose it’s more accurate to say that while there are quite a number of science-fiction mystery crossovers, the number of really readable ones is rather small. Too often, the author has decided to retell a traditional story in science fiction terms, and for every intelligent August Derleth who produces clever re-tellings of Sherlock Holmes stories (the Solar Pons stories), there’s a dozen unskilled practitioners who use our reverence for the Great Detective and knowledge of his character to tell a boring and/or uninspired story. Occasionally there’s an inventive writer who falls into a trap; it’s difficult to tell a locked-room mystery story properly if you have aliens around who can walk through walls, or if time travel is a fact of life. That’s what happens when a competent science fiction writer like Larry Niven tries his hand at a mystery; he doesn’t know enough about mystery to make it work properly. In the past I’ve found the science fiction mystery to contain much more chaff than wheat.

Marid_Audran_When_Gravity_FailsOnce in a while, of course, you find a merging of a specific style of mystery with a specific style of science fiction that works quite well. The private-eye story and/or the film noir movie meshes quite well with the science-fiction dystopia story; the best example is probably Blade Runner (1982), where director Ridley Scott added the trappings of film noir to a story by psycho genius science fiction writer Philip K. Dick and produced a great movie.

When Gravity Fails is another successful cross-over of the private-eye story told against a dystopian backdrop and I earnestly recommend it to your attention. It (and its three sequels) were hard to find for many years, and you needed to be actively searching for it in used bookstores if you hoped to find a copy, but these days it’s available on Amazon and in e-format. So you have little excuse to miss this treat.

What is this book about?

Marid Audran, originally from the Maghreb in Northwest Africa, is a small-time hustler in “the Budayeen”, somewhere unspecifed in the Middle East. The Budayeen is the quarter of a large city where prostitutes, alcohol, drugs, and petty crime are rampant. Marid buys, sells, and uses considerable quantities of drugs; his friends and associates are other less-than-reputable citizens who work as prostitutes, pimps, bartenders, and petty criminals.

imagesMarid was born in what we’d call 2172 (and is possibly in his 20s at the time of the novel); there have been a number of scientific and political developments since our century. The main discovery that affects the book is that people routinely have their brains wired for “moddies” and/or “daddies”. Daddies are insertable chips providing skills, like accounting or a knowledge of conversational German, that augment your own personality; moddies contain entire personalities that replace yours entirely (although daddies can still be used on top of them). In other words, you can get a moddie that will make you into Indiana Jones or Kim Kardashian, and adding daddies will allow you to play the violin while you become that person.

A secondary development is that sex reassignment surgery has become routine; Marid doesn’t care if you were born one sex and became another, and it’s not uncommon for people to start a transition and stop halfway, as a “deb”. Marid’s girlfriend began life as a male, and many of his friends have followed similar paths; no one cares what your sexual preference is until they can make money by furthering it.

Marid is unusual, in this society, because he was born a male and remains so, and refuses to have his brain modified to accept moddies and daddies. However, when a series of brutal murders among Marid’s acquaintance begins in the Budayeen, he is forced to become involved. One of the major figures in the Budayeen, crime boss Friedlander Bey, at first suspects Marid of the murders. When that is resolved, Friedlander Bey forces Marid to become his private investigator, at a rate of pay too high to refuse, and to get expensive experimental brain modifications that allow him the widest possible choice of moddies and daddies.

The criminal is killing and mutilating his victims apparently under the influence of a particularly sadistic moddie, possibly one that combines various aspects of various historical serial killers. Marid uses a number of moddies during his investigation, including at one point becoming Nero Wolfe (!) and failing to persuade a hanger-on to chip in as Archie Goodwin. Nero Wolfe and Marid’s own considerable intelligence lead him first to the actual killer and then to the shadowy figure who has been directing the killings.

Why is this worth your time?

images-1As I noted above, the field of the science-fiction mystery — the readable portion — is very small. I’ve enjoyed a few over the years, but there’s more bad ones than good ones. Either the science-fiction aspects overwhelm the mystery story, or vice versa; it’s a tough balance to get right.

George Alec Effinger got it right in this novel, and he did so in a technically very accomplished way. When you’re trying to immerse someone in an unusual environment and time-frame, like 19th century England or 22nd century Africa, you give the flavour by showing how the protagonist reacts to what HE considers to be everyday objects and events around him and letting the reader draw her own conclusions. There’s two ways in which this process usually fails. Either the writer makes the horrible error of getting the details wrong (the 19th century English protagonist looks at his wrist watch) or the writer does an unreadable data dump in the opening chapters to bring you up to date on what you can’t already know. (“Jane knew that the invisible force fields, standard equipment in every flying car since the 2100s, would protect her in the crash.”) The delicate balance is achieved when the protagonist manages to make remarks about what’s going on around him that allow the reader to catch up, without being obvious or introducing a naive character who is in the narrative merely to be told things. Effinger gets this one absolutely bang-on. Not too much, not too little, and it takes a while to get up to speed on why and how things happen, but it’s a very pleasant experience racing up the learning curve. I always enjoy science fiction novels when they manage this perfectly, and very few do.

The other part that Effinger got right is that the structure of the book follows a typical film noir pattern, without pulling its punches. The ending is sad and quite depressing, but it’s gutsy and honest. And there’s a quotation at the beginning of the book that Effinger has nailed in bringing his protagonist into being: from Raymond Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder”.

“… He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world … He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks — that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.”

Unknown-1Marid Audran, despite (or perhaps because of) constant drug and alcohol intake and some fairly obvious character flaws, is the kind of viewpoint character that makes a very pleasant evening’s reading. He’s fascinating, complex, and not all one thing. His surroundings are, to quote Star Wars, “a wretched hive of scum and villainy.” The writing is excellent; Effinger’s ability to take you into a different world is superb.  This is one of the novels I’d recommend to people who don’t like the idea of science-fiction mysteries, possibly due to the same bad experiences I’ve had in the past. And I recommend it to you as a good mystery.

There are extensive references on the internet to this novel being a classic of cyberpunk, a seminal cyberpunk novel, etc. I’m not sure if I can agree 100% with assigning this novel as cyberpunk, but the differences are small. I suppose, like detective fiction, if you have something that “transcends its genre” then it is claimed as a representative of the “higher” art form rather than the “lower”. Not all cyberpunk novels mix film noir stories with futuristic dystopic backgrounds, but since this novel does, I’ll grant you it fits. I think it’s more interesting as a mystery than that, especially since it contains a very knowing nod to Rex Stout, but you can decide for yourself. Certainly cyberpunk was very hot in 1987 and it’s entirely possible that Effinger set out to write one.

Effinger was, unfortunately, both an uneven writer and a short-lived one. He actually wrote two full-length sequels to this volume, but they do not live up to the promise of the first. A Fire in the Sun (1989) and The Exile Kiss (1991) each represent a decline from the previous volume, mostly because Effinger’s finale for the first volume wrote him out of continuing the same life for his protagonist. There was a projected fourth volume that was only a few chapters at the time of Effinger’s untimely death; they look even worse, and that’s sad. I’d almost recommend you read this volume and stop; it’s brilliant in and of itself.

A note on editions

epscifi82_list__78713.1433603782The true first is the hardcover from Arbor House in 1987; you’ll see it above with an uninspired yellow cover and a mawkish illustration. The most expensive version, though, is a jacketless hardcover with 22 carat gold touches on the binding that includes “Collector’s Notes”; Easton Press did this in 1993. Honestly, I can’t figure out why. You can have the first, signed, today for US$125 before postage, etc., and that’s the most collectible one I’ve ever seen. I applaud the instinct to publish some science fiction in archival-quality editions, but this one is gaudy and overdone, to my eye, and the illustrations have nothing to do with the book.

I did this review with a beaten-up copy of the Bantam Spectra first paper edition seen at the top of this column, which is the edition by which I was gobsmacked back in ’87 when it came out. I expect my mental picture of Marid Audran will always be coloured by it. Other editions have followed, including at least one graphic novel, and the novel is currently available in an e-format. You should have no trouble finding your own; I recommend a durable copy since this book stands up to re-reading.

 

 

The Remaining (2014): Christian morality porn

The-Remaining-I-2014The Remaining (2014) was recommended by a friend who knows my interest in cheeseball horror or, indeed, cheeseball anything else; given a choice between a four-star film and a zero-star film, you’ll find me curled up in front of the piece de merde with a big smile on my face. I always say you can learn more about filmmaking from a terrible movie than a good one; a good film is seamless and it takes three or four viewings to come a full realization of, say, how the camera angles contribute to a sense of dread, or whatever. Whereas if you’re watching Sharknado or one of its fellow crapfests, you’re constantly thinking to yourself, “Wow, I would have avoided doing THAT,” and you start to learn the difference between good and bad filmmaking.

imagesBelieve me, you’ll learn a lot about filmmaking from this one!

Author: Chris Downing and Casey La Scala, who also directed.

Cast: Alexa Vega, who was the older sister in the Spy Kids movies and is now all grown up. Her Wikipedia biography cites her strong Christian faith. The remainder of the cast is a bunch of, generally, unknown actors who have small TV roles to their credit and who presumably needed the work.

The-Remaining-movie-church-photoOther data: According to Wikipedia, it grossed $1.7 million. Nobody’s apparently willing to disclose production costs, but I suspect this didn’t make back its money since there is no mention anywhere on the internet of The Remaining 2 being a possibility.

remaining_rapture-eyesAbout this film: This film starts out with an overlong sequence before the Rapture occurs at the 11-minute mark which establishes the characters and situation. It’s part of the currently very awful handheld camera trend, which started out as clever when The Blair Witch Project did it and is now a way of making a movie if you have a very low budget; one character clutches his camera despite all trials and tribulations. At the precise Raptorial moment, a viewpoint character is running his camera while coming down in an elevator with the bride’s parents; her mother is just saying that she wishes her daughter had been married in a church when — in a nice little moment — you can see the characters’ breath as everything gets very cold. Wham, half the wedding guests fall down and die, and their eyes glaze over. Weird things begin to happen; a little earthquake, some sort of sonic boom, and people start running from the building. In what has to be the nicest piece of production in this whole film, a huge airplane falls out of the sky and crashes into a nearby building. A handful of young people leave the building and head for a library to protect themselves as chunks of ice fall from the sky; they immediately decide it’s the Rapture because, as the bride sententiously remarks, “All the good people are gone, and all the bad people are left here.”  Well, the bride may be a bad person (I think we’re meant to believe she and her new husband had premarital sex) but she has grasped the concept immediately. She finds a bible in the library, buried under a stack of Nora Roberts novels, and, sure enough, everything was foretold precisely as it’s happening! They pick up a pretty young blond woman, who comes along with them for no apparent reason. They go to a church to find the bride’s BFF who, unbeknownst to her boyfriend, heads there every time they have a fight. The bride gets picked up by an invisible flying thing and gets dropped to the ground with terrible claw marks in her back; the bible she was clutching is now burned to ash.

images-1The kids meet up with the BFF at the church, engage in some hokey moralizing to cheer themselves up, and get patched up by a woman who is apparently the only person of colour left on earth. Some people head out to a hospital to get the bride some medical assistance, but of course there isn’t any. All the young people start to speculate about what’s going on and why they were spared (one girl says, without a hint of a smile, “I’m a good person. I’m just not a churchy good person, that’s all.”) The handsome bearded pastor who is holding down the church reveals that he was a bad person because even though he sort of believed in Jesus, he didn’t really; he was paying lip service, as it were. The church gets attacked by what might be demons, and everybody heads for the basement; the handheld video switches to the green of low-light shooting, which is both difficult to believe and damn near impossible to see. The pastor gets swept up by the invisible demons and disappears. At daylight, the young people (almost everyone in this film is meant to be 18-25) decide to make their way out through the now destroyed church and past the very-dead pastor. (People seem to develop sudden urges to move to the next location for no really good reason, almost as though the set rental had expired.) Off to the hospital, past a bunch of 18-25 extras wandering aimlessly around, only to find that the hospital is empty of medical help and supplies. The bride dies in her groom’s arms in what is meant to be a dramatic and poignant scene — she sees heaven and whispers how beautiful it is. The groom heads outside and curses God because she died — oh-oh, bad idea.  Yeah, a gigantic spike comes out of nowhere and kills him, then whisks him off into the sky. An invisible force in the hospital kills a few more kids. The few remaining kids, including the cynical videographer, head off to what appears to be a refugee camp. Golly, it’s almost as though the American system has come through and is restoring order! One of the hospital victims has left a video on her phone for her videographer boyfriend where she realizes the futility of her former life, where she was “spiritual” but not religious — now, oh, how she regrets it all. “We all have to make a choice.” She weeps and chooses God; whoops, she gets killed! The boyfriend goes off and gets baptized, while “Amazing Grace” plays in the background. But the other kid realizes that all that churchiness will draw the demons, and the newly baptized videographer gets torn apart by invisible demons. The two remaining kids, cynical boy and non-churchy girl, clutch each other — she decides to choose God too, and leaves the cynical guy behind as dark creepy demons start to come out of the sky. Cynical guy gets dragged away by demons as the movie ends.

This movie is very low budget. There are a couple of expensive pieces of SFX (airplane hits a building, and a quick scene where the young people walk past a burning helicopter) but by and large, the demons are literally invisible. So if you’re accustomed to movies that actually show you the monsters with which they’re trying to scare you once in a while, you will be disappointed; they couldn’t afford it. All the actors are fairly good, but they struggle with the dialogue they’re given. Alexa Vega’s death scene is just awful; it’s as though she said, “I’m not doing this film unless you give me one scene where I can go all out.” The trouble is, the underlying emotions are conceived by people who probably haven’t experienced them, and so they’re burlesqued and hokey. Cheap sets, no costumes, almost zero in the way of good special effects. And that extremely annoying handheld camera throughout, which makes me think merely that they couldn’t afford Panavision. Inserts that are obviously stock footage from Weather Channel. And the whole cast is (a) 18-25, (b) white, and (c) unconvincing. The whole thing is rather like Ed Wood Jr. had converted to Christianity and made this cheese log in honour of his newfound faith.

maxresdefaultWhat does this all mean? Now, as I mentioned, I do enjoy cheeseball horror. What struck me as sufficiently interesting about this film to warrant a blog post is something that I noticed about it, and its companion pieces about the Rapture, Left Behind/Left Behind II, two gloriously awful pieces of cinema starring, in #1, the execrable Nicolas Cage, and in #2, the execrable Kirk Cameron. Essentially, the Rapture flips the horror narrative by killing the good guys and making the bad guys suffer; I think I might have figured out why.

Back at the dawn of the slasher movie, people realized that there was a common pattern to be seen in horror movies intended primarily for a teenage audience; if you were a morally unsound person, you got killed, and if you were a young female virgin, you had a chance of surviving to the sequel. This gave rise to the umbrella description of this genre as “fuck and die movies”. It’s always the kids who are making out in the car who are the First To Die; the bullies, mean girls, sexually advanced, LGBT, petty criminals, disobedient kids, and even cigarette smokers were doomed to be chainsawed, or whatever the killer’s mode of choice happened to be for that property. Bad people die; good people live.

Here, though, all the good people die 11 minutes into the movie, and the rest are merely marking time until Satan’s minions snatch them up. Oh, they’re not REALLY bad; it seems clear that most of these good-looking youngsters are the kind of kids we would think of as good, it’s just that they had the misfortune to not have devoted themselves heart and soul to a Christian church. It’s the equivalent of premarital sex in a Jason Voorhees slasher; if you’re not good, you have to live through — according to the bible — seven years of torture and punishment. (Being strapped to a chair while Left Behind II played on endless repeat, for instance.)

The-Remaining-2But if you think about it, there’s something wrong with this idea. Who is the audience for this movie? I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that the only people who are taking this seriously — and who are not, like me, reeking of marijuana and giggling uncontrollably in the back row — are your basic hard-core dedicated Christians. And the movie is telling them that what they have to look forward to is dying 11 minutes into the movie. Oh, sure, they go to live with Jesus and all. But they die.

So is this meant to be a kind of “scared straight” moment for the pot smokers in the back row? I suppose there are some hard-core Christians who are stupid enough to believe that that could happen. But honestly, if a single person sees “the error of their ways” as a result of viewing this potboiler, I suggest his mental stability was none too solid in the first place, and Christianity is liable to be supplanted by Scientology, weightlifting, or anti-psychotics, in the very near future.

No, I think what this is is actually a particularly nasty kind of porn; Xtian revenge porn. (My regular readers know that I use the word “porn” to describe artistic endeavours that have the trappings of strong emotion without actually delivering.) The message here is, “Teenage evangelical Christians, you are RIGHT. Yes, your classmates all think you’re an idiot; you aren’t allowed to have sex before marriage, are constantly wracked with guilt for your ‘sins’, and are no longer even close to being the dominant paradigm. But you know what? Here’s what’s going to happen. When the Rapture comes, you’re going to go live with Jesus in heaven, and all those people who laughed at you — they’ll be torn to bits by mystical demons.” So your typical evangelical teenager in some rural flyover red state gets to experience what will happen to his enemies — that pretty girl who mocked him for being a virgin, that cynical popular guy who called him a dork, that pastor whom he suspected wasn’t really, really a true believer — in as much grisly detail as the budget could afford, which isn’t much. Yeah, that’ll teach YOU, you bastards. Just you wait till the Rapture comes, then you’ll be laughing out of the other side of your mouth. And I’ll be in heaven! All their lives they’ve watched Freddy Kruger whisk people off to hell, but for the wrong reasons … it makes perfect sense that they would believe that this large-scale revenge on the unchurched would be both imminent and this violent. Because if a little seed of doubt begins to creep in …

And that’s the trouble with the moral high ground — you have to be a really, really good person to claim it, and when you do, it’s awfully easy to slide off. If you think about this logically, taking any pleasure in this movie is a sin (because you REALLY should be trying to lead all these unchurchy people to the Lord, right?) and so by enjoying the suffering of the infidel you render yourself susceptible to be whisked into the sky by invisible demons. Oh, too bad, so sad.

I think I’ll risk the demons. Besides, if I actually did end up in heaven, I might have to endure Kirk Cameron being a pompous dick; I’d rather be in hell with my friends, thanks.

Notes for the collector:

You can get a used DVD of this for $4.82 on Amazon as of today. Why you’d bother I have no idea … but then, I’ve found in the past that it’s the significantly awful artistic items that become the most desirable and expensive in the future. If there is still the equivalent of a Blockbuster in your town, you should be able to pick this up in the bargain bin for $1.49 in about two years; see if you can manage that. But this is not a film for viewing; this is a film for laying down and avoiding.

Too Many Magicians, by Randall Garrett (1966)

2262290596What’s this book about?

Lord Darcy is the Chief Investigator for His Royal Highness Richard of Normandy. If you’ve never heard of Richard of Normandy, that’s because this is both a novel of detection and of fantasy; specifically, in the sub-genre of “alternate history”. What if Richard the Lion-Hearted had survived that archer’s arrow in 1199 and then financed the research that codified the Laws of Magic? Fast-forward to 1966, to a world where magic works and science is in its infancy, where men wear swords and where the major enemy of the Angevin Empire (after Britain conquered France once and for all) is the Polish Empire of King Casimir X, and the two empires are currently in the middle of a cold war.

907891267In the middle of some espionage activities that have produced a corpse for the investigative attentions of the great detective Lord Darcy, his “Watson”, forensic sorcerer Sean O’Lochlainn, is attending a meeting of the Royal Thaumaturgical Society at a London hotel. When the Empire’s Chief Forensic Sorcerer, Sir James Zwinge, is found dead behind a locked door in the hotel (and one that has been well-protected by magic spells), Lord Darcy and Master Sean have two cases to investigate that soon reveal international ramifications at the highest diplomatic level. Lord Darcy and Master Sean are inveigled into solving the case by the machinations of the Marquis of London and his assistant Lord Bontriomphe, ordinarily loyal allies but in this case needing to push to achieve fast results. Meanwhile, the relationship deepens between handsome Lord Darcy and Mary, Dowager Duchess of Cumberland, and a young prince of Mechicoe finds a way to express his rare magical talents in a way useful to the investigation. The story proceeds at a rapid pace, pausing only as Lord Darcy rescues a beautiful Polish sorceress from the icy waters of the Thames, and ends up at a gambling club, the Manzana de Oro, where the crimes are brought home to a guilty party who should be a surprise to many readers.

275352632Why is this worth reading?

If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t care for the idea of a fantasy detective story in an alternate timeline where magic works, then you are not likely to find much of interest here. That’s a shame, because this is a very clever story written by someone who was well-read in both the fantasy and mystery genres. Randall Garrett died regrettably young, and so only produced three volumes about Lord Darcy; this novel, and two volumes of short stories. But his fellow writer and friend Michael Kurland knew there was a great demand for more stories of murder and magic, and produced two further novels in the series.

And why was there such demand? Well, there are two major reasons I see for this set of stories being so popular. The first and foremost is that Garrett got the balance right between fantasy and mystery, and that’s very difficult to do — and satisfying to read.

When you begin with a premise like this, there are two competing sets of storytelling themes that have to be balanced. Yes, it is fascinating to speculate on what a gambling club would be like in a world where people have a Talent to affect the laws of chance, or how everyday items like refrigerators and house keys would have developed when based on magical principles. But if you stop for a lecture every time a character in the book opens the fridge or the front door, the action of the book soon grinds to a halt and gets bogged down beyond redemption. Garrett managed to give the reader just enough to interest, and titillate the imagination, without delving too deeply into details.

10562694527The other theme that has to be balanced is the need to have an internally consistent world-view that produces a fantasy murder mystery, without solving the crime by merely making up the rules. For instance, if you tell the reader that only women can use a particular magic spell, but then solve a crime by revealing in the final chapter that a male criminal had come into possession of the long-lost Amulet of Nermepherr that allowed him to cast that spell — well, you’ve just lost my interest once and for all. That’s the equivalent of a Golden Age of Detection writer introducing a master criminal in the last chapter who’s disguised as the local vicar; not fair and not interesting. I can tell you, there are a number of well-known authors who haven’t managed to pull off that balancing act, including the pseudonymous J.D. Robb, where all the technology is cutting-edge 2060 and half the social attitudes are 1985.  Here, it’s balanced beautifully. You learn the details of the spells that the sorcerers are talking about, their limitations, their effects, and everything you need to know to solve the crime. But the actual locked-room mystery itself is clever and very fair. (I don’t think it will be giving away too much to reveal that Garrett was familiar with a specific Carter Dickson novel and a specific Agatha Christie novel to produce this plot, but if you’re relying on what you think you recognize, you’ll be fooled. Very pleasantly, I may add.)

The second reason why these stories were so popular is that Randall Garrett had a very unusual sense of humour that is present in nearly every sentence and paragraph of his stories. I think it’s a conceit that’s based on the idea that in a parallel universe, familiar people and things from our own universe might be barely recognizable; here, Garrett allows himself every opportunity to drag in references to fictional characters from our universe, sometimes in a very hard-to-understand way.

TooManyMagiciansMost of my audience, being familiar with the Nero Wolfe canon, will find themselves smiling at the idea that the gourmandizing and horticultural Marquis of London never leaves his townhouse and employs a womanizing investigator named Bontriomphe to do his legwork. Bon = good; triomphe = win, therefore the gentleman is Archie Goodwin, and that’s an easy example of the kind of referential and macaronic wordplay with which these books are riddled. (See if you can figure out why his chef’s name is Frederique Bruleur.) But Garrett goes much, much further than that, and buries his punning references in the depths of obscurity.  For instance, I mentioned above that Lord Darcy rescues a Polish sorceress; her name is Tia Einzig, and she makes reference to her uncle Neapeler Einzig having escaped Poland and found safety on the Isle of Man. Those facts have very little to do with the story per se, but when you begin to dig into the etymology of the words and their possible cognates in other languages — Tia = Aunt, and Einzig is a bastardized translation of, essentially, “one in a zillion” — “Solo”.  Neapeler is a German word for Neapolitan, a person from Naples; again, a bastardized translation might be Napoleon. So her uncle is Napoleon Solo — the Uncle from Man.

In this volume, there’s a long, long chain of explanations that leads you to a moment where you slap your forehead, because a man named Barbour is a Pole by birth. There’s another set of allusions grafted into a short story that reference, believe it or not, bidding conventions in contract bridge. (If you play bridge, the explanation of why a “short club” was used to hit the victim will leave you giggling uncontrollably.) There’s a James Bond character, hidden references to the Grey Lensmen and the Pink Panther … one of the attendees at the magicians’ meeting is named Gandolphus Gray, which refers to Lord of the Rings. I will hold out temptingly the idea that it’s clear to me that there are other references in these books to people in our own universe but I just don’t know enough to know what they are; some are science fiction writers. The victim, Sir James Zwinge, is apparently based on the famous “magical debunker” James Randi. And to complete the circle, Garrett’s collaborator and continuation writer, Michael Kurland, is here represented as Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Coeur-Terre.

I think why this works so well for the reader is because I suggest that the kind of mind that enjoys solving murder mysteries is the same kind of mind that can look at “Neapeler ” and think “Neapeler = Naples-ian = Napoleon” and from there get to Napoleon Solo and the Man from U.N.C.L.E, and then be amused by the Uncle from Man. If you don’t like that sort of thing, then you will not actively dislike this book for that reason; it’s quite easy to overlook every instance of such wordplay if you’re simply not looking for it. But once you realize it’s there, and you do like that sort of thing — you’ll want to read this book to find out whodunnit, certainly, but you may also re-read it to see if you can catch yet another layer of wordplay that’s been buried by the clever Mr. Garrett.

So for mystery fans, you have a difficult locked-room mystery (and a light espionage plot). For fantasy fans, you have a clever alternate-history story and the interesting idea of state-regulated magic. And for paronomasiacs, you have the kind of word play that is only available when a dedicated and widely-read punster devotes considerable time and effort to burying a level of humour in a novel that’s only there if you look hard for it. I really enjoy this book, and all the Lord Darcy stories; I hope you do too.

Lord DarcyMy favourite edition

This volume and all the Lord Darcy stories have a complicated publishing history, but an interesting one. This novel originally appeared broken into sections in successive issues of Analog magazine, devoted to science fiction stories; so that’s the true first. It was then published in hardcover by Doubleday and the first paper is an ugly edition from Curtis. Someday I’ll write a monograph on how Curtis did nearly everything wrong as a publisher, mostly with covers, but choosing Garrett was one of the few good publishing decisions they ever made. All the Lord Darcy pieces by Garrett have been collected into a single compendium volume, Lord Darcy, and I think this is my “favourite” volume. My favourite is frequently the most valuable and/or the most beautiful, but in this case, it’s the most functional. If you need to flip back and forth to trace the appearance of a single character through different stories, this is how you want to do it.

Sharknado (2013)

Sharknado

The best worst film of the summer!

sharknadoAuthor: Written by a gentleman whose name is apparently Thunder Levin. This name is not, as you might imagine, a 21st century take on Alan Smithee. Mr. Levin is a real person who wishes his association with this film to be known; he also co-wrote and directed the recent piece de merde, Atlantic Rim — released the same month as the much more expensive Pacific Rim, but this one stars David Chokachi, previously known for Baywatch, and features Canadian First Nations actor Graham Greene, who should have known better but probably had a granddaughter who needed dental work or something. Anyway, Thunder Levin is proud of himself, and who can gainsay that? I’ve never had a film script produced, although apparently all I have to do is think of a plot that goes with the title Shark Tsunami.

Perhaps more worthwhile to consider is the production company in charge of this; The Asylum. This is a production company busily doing what I think of as “garbage mining”; they seek out niches of genres that do not appeal to people with good taste and exploit them for all they’re worth.  If you look them up on IMDB, you’ll see that they’re heavily invested in films that have the words “Shark” and “Zombie” disproportionately represented in their titles. They also have produced a number of coattail movies; for instance, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter came out in 2012 and so did The Asylum’s production of Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.  Similarly, Atlantic Rim and Pacific Rim, as noted above. It is a sobering thought that you hope to make money by appealing to people who are too stupid or forgetful to know what the exact name of a film is, or who fondly believe that someone has erred and released a brand-new film to Netflix 20 minutes after it came out in theatres.

Other Data:  July 11, 2013, according to IMDB.  The film has become well known for the social buzz which accompanied it.  “According to the Syfy network, Sharknado, which aired on Thursday night, brought in nearly 5,000 tweets per minute.  This … came within 2,500 tweets of Game of Thrones‘s Red Wedding episode when it aired in early June.”

Cast: Ian Ziering as, believe it or not, Fin Shepard.  Mr. Ziering is perhaps best known for his work in the original Beverly Hills 90212.  Tara Reid as April Wexler.  Ms. Reid is perhaps best known for being a drunken slut whose antics never fail to sell a few extra tabloids.  Her appearance in this film means to the mediaologically savvy that her career has now become a joke; people no longer expect her to act but merely to be sufficiently well known that someone will recognize her name when they see it near the title.  She made a film in Vancouver a few years ago that required her to pretend to be an archaeologist; it was perfectly obvious that she would need three or four tries to spell “archaeologist”.  Cassie Scerbo plays the beautiful girl with large breasts who is not Tara Reid. Supporting cast includes a bunch of people no one has ever heard of, playing roles like “Nurse”, “Beach Victim,” and “Beach Attack Survivor”, and Adrian Bustamante, who actually is an interesting actor.  He did a great job of playing Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace’s murderer, in a made-for-TV movie a few years ago.  This is proof that no matter how good you are, you have to work for a living.  Even Tara Reid.

About this film:

sharknado-attackIt’s called Sharknado. What can I tell you? Did you actually need a plot recap for Snakes on a Plane? The central premise is that a tornado, or waterspout, actually gathers up a bunch of assorted sharks and sprays them at high velocity all over Los Angeles. No, I’m not kidding; this defies everything that anyone knows about weather systems and marine biology, but what a high-concept premise, huh? This leads to a typical moment where an unpleasant character says, “Sharks in the swimming pool?  It’s impossiAAARRRGH!!”  People drive around during the sharkocalypse (sorry, it’s absolutely irresistible) for no really good reason except that if you stay indoors it’s hard to get menaced by a shark.  Sharks land on the roof of your car and try to chew their way through to get at you.  Sharks rain down on the beach and force innocent extras to bury their limbs in the sand and pretend that they’ve been amputated.

The opening sequence is saying something about the illegal harvesting of sharks’ fins for the Asian market, but it’s never mentioned again. Perhaps it explains why sharks appear to throw themselves suicidally into a series of waterspouts, so that they can rain down upon helicopter pads and SUVs in Los Angeles.  Ian Ziering plays a guy named Fin — hilarious, right? — who owns a bar. His ex-wife is Tara Reid, and after her new boyfriend discovers that, yes, there really ARE sharks in the swimming pool, Tara and the horrible bratty kids require rescue, because, you know, staying in the basement would be too sensible.  The rest of this plot is even more chaotic and incomprehensible.

There is a long sequence in the middle where a group who is speeding across town for some stupid but putatively urgent reason stops and spends what must be two hours rescuing children from a school bus by winching them up to an overpass. Because apparently the LAPD et al are occupied elsewhere. (You know if this really happened CNN and Fox would be giving you a blow-by-blow of the rescue in real time and their choppers would be interfering with the rescue efforts.) The chubby, nerdy bus driver says, “Gee, my mom always said Hollywood would kill me!”  He is then immediately splattered by a flying letter from the Hollywood sign that has been swept up by the wind. We are meant to laugh at this. The part I laughed at was when I realized that the producers couldn’t afford any kind of special effect so they settled for a spray of red paint onto the flying piece of sign.

CRO_money_Sharknado_07-13-thumb-598xauto-7238There’s a moment near the end where Ian Ziering, armed with a chainsaw, deliberately catapults himself into the mouth of a huge shark and then cuts his way out of its belly, emerging unscathed.  This is, of course, indescribably stupid and over the top.  The internet literature surrounding this film suggests that Thunder Levin, when asked by cooler heads if such-and-such a piece of dialogue or plot twist was not too indescribably stupid or over the top, replied, “It’s called Sharknado, for chrissakes!” I suppose since I actually picked up my remote control and invoked this film, I can’t complain that it’s too indescribably stupid or over the top.  I do intend to suggest it, though. Strongly.

As I have said elsewhere in this blog, notably about a film from the same production company, I enjoy bad art. I am, in fact, one of those incomprehensible people who likes to smoke a joint and put on a double bill of, say, Plan 9 From Outer Space and The Brain From Planet Arous and laugh my ass off. Given the success of this film, though (the Internet is saying they’re already making a sequel), I think it’s necessary to make an important distinction. The kind of bad art that I enjoy is art that was not created as bad art, but, like Ed Wood Jr., where someone set out to make a fine film and ended up with Glen or Glenda.  I have never enjoyed films like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes which deliberately set out to BE bad art; I don’t care much for the “nudge nudge wink wink” school of cinema.

Thunder Levin cannot possibly have made a good movie, given the raw materials; you cannot hire Ian Ziering and Tara Reid, restrict the budget to $2 million, and expect work at the level of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. As a character on Modern Family said recently, “Meryl Streep could play Batman and be the right choice.”  It works the other way: Tara Reid could play a drunken slut and be the wrong choice. Not every film can hire Meryl Streep and play with $150 million worth of special effects; I get that. But if you’re restricted to making a small movie, I can’t see that there is any choice other than trying to make a good small movie, unless you are The Asylum. The Asylum deliberately casts actors who have more reputation than talent, trying to parlay a tiny budget into some kind of recognition factor. In the past they have used  Carmen Electra, Jaleel White, Tiffany, Lorenzo Lamas and Debbie Gibson.  This is not an accident; they’re trying to make you laugh at the spectacle of a washed-up 80’s pop star with little or no acting talent being menaced by either Mega-Shark or Giant Octopus.  In short, what this is is meretricious.  They’ve avoided the arena of “good” or “bad” filmmaking and settled for counting up the number of times someone tweets “OMG Lorenzo Lamas is such a cheeseball!”  In other words, apparently in the progression from direct-to-video to direct-to-Netflix, someone has realized that you don’t actually have to create a film at all — you merely have to create something that people will talk about as if it were a film.

I think it’s quite telling that even though I am one of the few reviewers who is willing to engage with a bad film and try and assess it rationally, I ended this experience wishing that I had not had the experience of watching this.  I can only hope that this fad for deliberately bad art will be over soon.  Given the fact that they can make money without actually spending much, I tend to doubt it, but I can hope.

Oh, I nearly forgot to mention the one thing that made me laugh for the right reasons. Not content with the heavy-handed mockery of naming the central character Fin, the closing slide, in an echo of fine foreign movies of a certain vintage, says merely “Fin”.  THAT, I laughed at.

Notes For the Collector:

The film is currently being shown on television in Canada on Space and in the USA on Syfy.  If you do not live in one of those countries, or don’t have cable, you can purchase a copy on Amazon for about $11.99 as of September 3, 2013. Why exactly you would want to do that is a matter between yourself and your artistic integrity, but it’s there if you want it.

Battleship (2012)

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Title: Battleship

Year: 2012

Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Brooklyn Decker, Liam Neeson, Alexander Skarsgård, Rihanna

Themes: Alien Invasion, Combat Action

Generally speaking, I try to go and see films like this in a theatre, where I can.  This is one of the few types of films that really demands to be seen in a theatre with a huge screen, Dolby surround sound, all that good stuff, and in the company of the popcorn-munching hoi polloi.  (Otherwise, how would you know when something was meant to be funny?)  But for some reason I missed this last summer and just got a DVD of it the other day.

I mean, okay, let’s be clear.  This is the kind of film where you walk out of the theatre, as I am wont to say, humming the special effects.  The SFX are the star of this show, no question, and the actors play a decided second fiddle.  Everything about this film is oriented towards building towards SFX set-pieces, displaying them dramatically, and then moving on to the next.  There are entire films (Tron: Legacy comes to mind) where the film is about the SFX and wouldn’t be meaningful without them.

That being said, this film has some interesting moments.  To start with, as most of you already know, it’s based on a game.  Not a video-game-to-video translation like Doom or Lara Croft, but a game that you play in your home without the intermediation of a computer or a video screen.  So there’s a delicate balance that goes on in a situation like this.  Obviously it cannot be a transliteration of the game, with two people each trying to sink the other’s battleships.  At the same time, battleships must be sunk, as it were.  You need ships, sailors, and a situation that requires combat.

In order to solve this problem and bring some sort of coherent baseline to the script, the producers grafted the good old “Alien Invasion” theme in, so as to anchor everything.  So there are no racial or cultural tensions (the script feebly tries to graft in a US vs. Japan element but renounces it so that the “unlikely buddies” theme becomes more prominent as “all the humans work together to defeat the soulless aliens”).  But the alien invasion theme actually worked for me.

In fact, the script is quite clever, as these things go.  Look at what you’re starting with — the requirement that at least once during the movie the audience should hear, “You sank my battleship!” or equivalent.  There are no characters, no plot events, nothing but the requirement to have battleships firing at each other for some reason.  So I have to say that the script goes to a great deal of trouble to add interesting plot events and characters.  I’m not saying this is a triumph of characterization — Brooklyn Decker does a really good job at being “the girl who bounces when she runs” where Nicole Kidman would not — but it’s better than it has to be.  Indeed, this is almost a good story and these are characters whom one cares about ever so slightly.

A couple of minor characters, indeed, steal the show; a red-headed ensign/sidekick who is an amusing doofus, and some sort of sailor played by Rihanna, who cusses and is tough.  Both these actors deserve our praise and future attention.  I honestly didn’t recognize Rihanna for a moment, until she had the benefit of some amazing lighting in a shot that looked accidentally designed to make her look gorgeous.  She too is better than she has to be.  I’m not saying she transcends the entire oeuvre of “semi-famous musicians who are plunked into small roles in big movies” but, frankly, she doesn’t suck.  She appears to have listened to the director and has some natural acting talent — and the courage to be restrained and moderately believable, rather than wearing three feet of eyelashes and a push-em-up.

The final third of the film is devoted to the type of activity I think of as “things blow up good”, which in this case is mostly sea-going vessels.  There is an amusing bit where the survivors of one sinking must commandeer a drydocked relic from WWII, complete with elderly sailors.  The aliens have technology that lets them blow things up decisively and manage to kill off Alexander Skarsgard at about the midpoint of Act II, but not before he manages to remove his shirt in an early scene (this is, after all, a summer blockbuster).  Taylor Kitsch survives, which is good, and does not manage to remove his shirt, which is bad.  Perhaps he felt his excellent physique was too much on view in John Carter earlier in the year.

I was interested in a bit of technology run by the aliens — a kind of spinning wheel of teeth that is projected onto an enemy vessel, or land-based installation, and simply rolls around at high speed crunching whatever is in its path into splinters.  It reminded me a little of Stephen King’s The Langoliers, but much more explosive.  I was also curious about a small point of their tech.  Numerous times during the film, alien tech looks at a screen, map or live input and puts a green line around non-threatening things and a red line around threatening ones.  The aliens in person then, for instance, slap the “red lined” rifle out of the “green lined” human’s hands, disarming him without killing him.  What I was wondering was, “why not just kill them?  Did you have a use for them later?”  And, perhaps less importantly, where did the aliens get the idea that green means safe and red means dangerous?  A little bit anthropocentric, to my mind.  And perhaps I am looking for logic where none need exist, because the film is perfectly enjoyable without the requirement of conscious thought.  Still, it did pique me a bit.

All things considered, I was very pleasantly surprised.  I felt I had received more than I’d signed up for and still had an enjoyable couple of hours.  Mind you, I was expecting absolute rubbish — I mean, come on, a movie based on a child’s board game.  I’m aware that cross-platforming from children’s consumer products/media into feature films doesn’t always work (Rocky & Bullwinkle, The Flintstones) and sometimes does (The Dark Knight, Watchmen).  This one, based on the most slender of threads, actually worked.  Go figure.  I expect this will be available in various forms of television by 2013 and, if you like this sort of thing, you will certainly like this one.

2012: Ice Age

I was recently asked why it is that I spend more time thinking about bad art than good art — at least, as far as blogging is concerned. There are a number of answers to this question. One is that there is a lot more bad art out there than good art, and it’s just as important to suggest to people what to avoid as what to experience. Another is that it is simply more fun to write about bad art because it allows the bitchy side of my nature to express itself, and apparently I please my readers more that way. The overarching reason is more complex; boiled down, it is that my feeling is one learns more about how to make good art by analyzing bad art than by analyzing good art.
For instance, in filmic terms, one can enjoy a film like Avatar because of reasons that are not readily apparent to the naked eye. The composition of shots, the excellence of the special effects/animation, the skill of the actors, the careful way in which the script is built from start to finish, the way in which the thematic underpinnings of the script accord with Joseph Campbell’s theories on heroism… all these things were created by people who are among the most skilled in the world at creating entertainment. It’s difficult to pick at an individual thread because the movie is so skillfully constructed, so seamless, that it’s just about necessary to be a master of the art oneself in order to appreciate the subtleties and outline them for others.
And then you have 2012: Ice Age, a 2011 made-for-TV movie from SyFy channel, which is possibly the polar opposite of Avatar.
Honestly, this film is simply so awful, so atrocious, that it’s like a lesson in how not to make a film. It’s the disaster-film version of Plan 9 from Outer Space, except that Ed Wood had better instincts than to make this piece de merde in the first place.
I wanted particularly to write about this because it is not often that I so thoroughly enjoy a movie — for all the wrong reasons. I was bellowing with laughter throughout the experience and, believe me, I don’t laugh that long and hard very often. Every single aspect of this work was so poorly done, so ill-considered, that it’s not just a product of too little money applied to too little imagination coupled with too little skill. This was the result of a staggering concatenation of bad choices; terrible production of a horrible script with inexperienced actors — I’ll be charitable and call them inexperienced — against a background of amateurish special effects and inexplicable cinematography. The sets are poor, the costumes are silly, the locations are ridiculous, the sound effects are poorly-timed. I’m willing to bet the production accounting was full of mistakes and the craft services truck was serving over-steamed hot dogs and tepid coffee.
The story itself is — okay, I’ll give it a shot. A pudgy little climatologist sees his daughter off on a plane from Maine to New York, only to realize that a volcano in Iceland has erupted. Apparently, in a process unknown to any science I’ve ever heard of, this causes 200-foot icicles to spray all the way to Maine and a wall of super-cold weather to freeze New York extras in their tracks. In a staggering display of idiocy, the climatologist, his wife and son decide to hop in the car and drive to New York to rescue the young woman, who has her own set of climate-induced problems. Needless to say, after multiple trials and tribulations, the day is saved and all’s right with the world. Every character acts as stupidly as possible, in order to increase the twists and turns in the story, and thus are constantly in danger, which results in a series of miraculous rescues and coincidental escapes that stagger the imagination. No, sorry. There is no imagination involved here. What this really is is a series of meretricious decisions based on “How little can we spend to fill some time?”
As I say, I roared with laughter throughout. How silly is this movie? One example will suffice, I hope. Near the beginning, the protagonist is dropping off his daughter at an airport. There is some “amusing” byplay whereby he’s about to be towed away from a no-parking zone, apparently in front of the main doors to a large airport. He drives away — and the camera pulls back to reveal what is fairly unambiguously a side street in an industrial area miles from any airport. Oh, and the location is completely different from what we saw seconds ago when he was being berated by a parking official; as is the degree of sunshine and the colour of the sky. (For all I could tell, they’re in a different vehicle.) The rest of this is filled with continuity errors and ghastly special effects lacunae of a similar magnitude. If you’re like me, you’ll cherish this movie as a prize of your collection; 99.9% of the viewing audience would be well-advised to stay as far away from it as possible. Consider yourself warned.