Finished reading: My Brother by Jamaica Kincaid 📚

The latest bookclub book. Kincaid’s brother died in 1996 of AIDS. Kincaid herself was estranged from her family for 20 years, so she saw her brother when he was three, and then again when he was 33, and dying.

Unsurprisingly this is more about her than about him. She looks at feelings towards her birth family: does she love her brother? Does she love her mother? ‘No’ is her conclusion for both. But she examines different kinds of love, different ways of loving.

Parts of it are kind of like cubist art in a way: examining the same place, person, or event, at different times, in the way the cubists would try to show a subject from different angles at the same time.

The writing flows very smoothly despite some impressively- if not excessively-long sentences.

Books 2024, 7

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!, 1988 - ★★★★

This stands up surprisingly well after all these years. A hilarious romp. Some of the worst parking you’ve ever seen. 

A list of 50 best comedy films we were looking at puts it above Airplane which I don’t personally agree with. But it’s up there near it, certainly.

Game Night, 2018 - ★★★★

A gloriously funny romp. A farce in the best sense. A couple like to have regular game nights. His brother likes to win. So do both of the couple, to be fair.

But the brother wants to put on a special game night. And things get crazy.

Peter Higgs, physicist who proposed Higgs boson, dies aged 94

It’s a good age, as far as that goes. He was already professor emeritus at Edinburgh back when I was at uni. Still sad, though.

Society of the Snow, 2023 - ★★★½

A dramatisation of the horrifying experiences of a rugby team from Uruguay whose plane crashed in the Andes on the way to Chile in 1972. Of the 43 people aboard the plane, 16 survived to eventually be rescued 72 days later!

This film contains some terrifying, extremely well-executed scenes. The crash itself, an avalanche that buries the plane after a few days. It's all immensely powerful and affecting.

Not a fun watch, exactly but a worthwhile one.

And yes, they had to eat what you imagine they had to eat, to survive. It's very well handled.

Finished reading: A River Called Time by Courttia Newland 📚

I got this as a Christmas present from my beloved. I had no idea who Courttia Newland is. I assumed it was a woman, at first. It’s not, and it turns out I had experienced some of his work already, as he wrote some of the scripts for Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series of films; specifically Lover’s Rock, Red, White and Blue , and Education . (I wouldn’t bother clicking those links, it looks like I didn’t write anything about them.)

I started the novel without reading any reviews or anything about it other than the blurb and quotes on the cover. The key one of those is this, from the Observer:

A vast and wildly ambitious piece of speculative fiction that asks what the world would look like if slavery and colonialism never existed.

Which set me up with some expectations. Sensibly, Newland doesn’t make this imagined world a utopia. Far from it, in fact. The world in which the antagonist, Markriss, finds himself, is pretty grim.

And to my mind, at least at first, the only thing in-universe that tells us about the absence of colonialism, etc, is skin colour is never mentioned. Yes, the world is different from our own, and it turns out (reading around the novel) a major reason is, instead of the weird monotheism of Judaeo-Christianity-Islam having the major religious impact on world history, African religions have the biggest influence.

What this means for our hero is he can have an out-of-body experience and it not exactly be unexpected.

Which takes us into the whole out-of-this-world part of this novel. All those blurbs talk about it as a novel of decolonisation and so on, which is fine. But that’s because Newland has a mainstream, literary reputation — he has published several previous novels. This, though is a genre work. Science fiction, you might say, or fantasy, looked at from another direction.

And what nothing prepares you for (well, the reviews do, but I didn’t want to read them first) is that this is a multiverse story. Because Markriss’s ability to leave his body in his astral form develops to the point where he can do so permanently; and then drop back down into a different tributary of the titular river.

This takes puts him in an alternative version of himself: another timeline. Some have very similar events and experiences; some are very different, such as one that doesn’t look at all removed from our own. He always has some of the people closest to him, though their relationships vary.

It’s effective and accomplished, but it can be unsatisfying. Because, when he leaves a timeline, he leaves its story incomplete. We don’t know what happened to the first version of Markriss, or the second, or…

Sometimes the language, the linguistic style, can be confusing. But it feels like a positive sort of confusion, the kind that stretches your mind.

On the whole, I enjoyed it.

Books 2024, 6

Somewhere out there, I’m fairly sure, a crime is happening. But Saga will work it out.

Dune: Part Two, 2024 - ★★½

To the IMAX at Waterloo last Sunday, with a group of fellow writers from the Spectrum group. As I said, I wasn't that impressed when I watched part 1 on Netflix. Still, this would be wholly different, not least because of it being on a giant screen.

Which was true enough. That screen is almost too big, certainly when you're sitting in row G and there's a closeup: Timothée Chalamet's face shouldn't be gigantic! Luckily there weren't too many of those occasions.

More to the point, this a spectacular movie, in the literal sense: it's all about the spectacle. And there's plenty of that. Battles, explosions, sandworms, duels.

And it's all a bit… not that good really, I thought. I liked parts of it. But really disliked the overall narrative arc. As I said last time, I remember the book hardly at all. So the transition of Paul Atriedes from teen duke trying to find his way with the Fremen, to world leader and messiah figure challenging the galactic emperor himself? Frankly, I don't buy it, and I didn't like it.

My favourite moment was Chani (Zendaya) turning away and walking out when everyone else bowed down to him. In fact in acting terms Zendaya is the best thing about this film. She can express so much just with her face, it was incredible.

Of course that ability might have been exaggerated by her face being the size of a bus, but no one else was doing that.

The worst thing about it in a ways was that it didn't feel like the end brought us to a conclusion. It felt like the middle volume of a trilogy. And I'm quite sure the original book didn't feel like that. I know there are several sequels, but I don't believe it was written as the start of a series. It was a self-contained work.

In fact I started the second one, Dune Messiah (and yes, that title should have given me some clues to the above complaints) all those years ago, and couldn't get into it. Didn't finish it.

The odd thing about all this is that it makes me slightly want to go back and read the book (and maybe carry on this time).

Anyway, there we are. There had do be someone who didn't think it's the best thing since freshly-baked baguette.

BBC 6 Music is playing a live set from their festival, and I turned it on and thought, ‘How can there be a Joy Division live set?’ Till I realised it’s a live DJ set. Mary Anne Hobbes is playing ‘Transmission’. Whew! I thought things had got really weird there!

No Country for Old Men, 2007 - ★★½

This film is infuriating. It reminded me of Shallow Grave, at least at the start, in this way: if you find a load of money that's obviously come from a drug deal gone wrong, or otherwise somehow involved in organised crime, there is one thing you should not do. That is try it keep it all, to run away with it or hide it, and expect to survive the wrath of the criminals.

The safest thing, of course, is to just walk away from it all and call the cops. But if you must get into it, then obviously what you should do is take some of the money. Not a lot. Say, 10%. An amount that the gangsters might plausibly accept as having gone missing during the the shootout, or whatever. Leave the rest, call the cops, and let them handle the aftermath. You might get away with it.

Here, the main character does exactly the wrong thing. What's worse, in story terms, is that from the start we have no one to identify with: no character who is obviously the 'hero,' if you like. No one to root for. Because it all starts off without us having any particular reason to root for Llewelyn. And as it goes on, and we do start to want him to make it — if only because the focus is mainly on him — he continues to annoyingly make terrible choices.

Worse still -- and spoilers ahead -- worse still, his story is just dropped on the floor. He doesn't even get the respect of us seeing his end. The narrative hands over to a secondary character (though to be fair, that character, the sheriff, is the first character we meet, if only in voiceover).

And the end is just... nothing. 

It is by far my least favourite Coen brothers film.

See in Letterboxd

Hackney Marshes on a Monday morning in October
This is what Hackney Marshes looks like on a Monday morning in October

Star Ratings

Giving star ratings to things I’ve watched, read, etc, is not something I ever did until I started using Letterboxd. It looks like I started logging films in September 2019 (the August ones were a bulk mental dump when I first set up my account). I didn’t start them automatically posting here until the November, and I’m sure I’ve missed one or two along the way.

My initial thought was just to log the films that I watched, as an aide memoire as much as anything. But Letterboxd encourages you to give the films star ratings. I’ve been doing that, but all the time I wonder what exactly I mean by them.

Which sounds like a strange thing to say. I made the choices, after all: I set the rating. Surely I knew what I meant when I did it?

And that’s true enough on each occasion. I know what I mean when I give the rating. But that’s the thing: it’s what I meant at that time. All it means is what I thought of the the film at the time I added the entry to Letterboxd. I’m not trying to make a statement about what is good in absolute terms. I’m just saying something about what I thought about the film at that time.

I like to think that I judge each film on its own merits. At the very least, I try to judge it in terms of what it’s trying to achieve. A five-star drama and a five-star comedy are very different things. It won’t be very meaningful to compare the ratings I’ve given to different films and see if there’s a hierarchy of my preferences. Though it is fair to say that any film with five stars is one of my favourites.

While Letterboxd encourages star ratings, it pleases me that you don’t have to give one. Unlike, say in some online surveys, where zero is not an option. I don’t know, though, whether a Letterboxd ‘no stars’ should count as ‘zero stars,’ or just the choice not to rate it. I intended the latter with Can’t Get You Out of my Head, as I made clear in the post.

It seems that I rarely watch anything less than three-star, though. Either I’m very discerning, or I only watch things I know I’m going to like.

The Matrix Revolutions, 2003 - ★★★½

If only in the interest of being ready for the new one, it's worth being up to date with this. But actually it's a much better film than I remembered.

Sure, the Zion battle scenes go on for much too long, and the overall story is not entirely coherent; but it's much more coherent than I remembered, and just that much better. In the sense that it sits well with the second one, which I loved when it came out.

Neither of them is as good, as effective, as the first on its own, of course, but the whole ends up being more of a cohesive trilogy than I thought. XKCD notwithstanding.

See in Letterboxd

Neuromancer by William Gibson (Books 2021, 20)

I’m on a bit of a reread thing at the moment, partly because I moved some books around recently, which revealed some older ones.

This is another one that stands up really well. It has some amusing out-of-time moments, like ‘three megabytes of hot RAM’: imagine having that much computer memory! And the well-known geostationary satellite over Manhattan impossibility.1 But we don’t let those things bother us.

What’s interesting is just how much it influenced The Matrix. It was always fairly obvious that the Wachowskis named their virtual world after Gibson’s cyberspace, though Doctor Who got there first, and possibly others did too. But there’s a scene in Neuromancer where Case sees drifting lines of code overlaid on the reality that he’s perceiving. Very much seems the inspiration for Neo seeing the Matrix.

Anyway, it’s still a fine story, with some striking prose.

  1. You can only have a geostationary satellite over the equator, in case you don’t know. ↩︎

Our Last, Best, Hope for TV?

You wait years for a beloved three-letter-creator to return to a beloved SF show, and then two happen in one week. After the news of RTD returning to Doctor Who, we have… JMS returning to – and rebooting – Babylon 5?

I did not see that coming. And I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. Babylon 5was among my favourite programmes of the nineties. It was groundbreaking, in that it was probably the first such show to be planned from the start as a single long (five year) story. With many sub-stories and side plots along the way, as you might imagine.

It was, of course, flawed, especially in the rushed completion of season 4. They thought they were going to be cancelled, so JMS tried to tie up most of the loose ends in that season. Then season 5 was saved, and ended up being slow and underpowered by comparison.

For this proposed reboot – it’s TV, so nothing is definite till it’s in the can – he says he will ‘not be retelling the same story in the same way because of what Heraclitus said about the river’, but that ‘this is a reboot from the ground up rather than a continuation’.

If anyone else was running it, you could count me out. Straczynski could make it great again, but I sort of wonder why he wants to. Not unlike my wondering about why RTD wants to return to Who. I suppose we’re never entirely satisfied with our creations, so getting the opportunity to go back and rework them can be tempting. But I’m not sure it’s always healthy.

Still, we live in hope.

Lanark: A Life in 4 Books by Alasdair Gray (Books 2021, 19)

I read this a long time ago, and the strange thing now is that everything I remembered of it happens in the first two books: that is, in Book 3 and Book 1. As I’m sure you know, the internal books are ordered 3, 1, 2, 4.

Which sort of suggests that I didn’t finish it all those years ago, but I’m sure that isn’t the case. There were odd moments of the slightest sense of the familiar in the other books, so I guess it’s just vagaries.

Anyway, it was and remains a monumental work. It struck me as odd that the blurb describes it as ‘a modern vision of hell.’ I had never thought of it in those terms. True, Lanark’s situation is dark, difficult, and confusing, and he can be seen as Thaw after death, if Thaw dies at the end of Book 2, which seems likely. But hell? That seems extreme. Lanark has difficulties, but he’s not in a state of eternal torment.

He is, however, quite a frustrating character. He is thrown into a situation – several situations – where he doesn’t understand what is going on, or how the world works; and for the most part he doesn’t ask even the most obvious questions, or make any attempt to gain understanding. So he’s not so much protagonist as a character being pushed around by circumstance. Or by his author, whom we meet in the fourth-wall-destroying epilogue towards the end of the book.

Much more obviously, Lanark’s experiences in Unthank and beyond are a satire of late-stage capitalism. Which you could say is a form of hell, so maybe that’s what the blurb writer was getting at.

The Manchurian Candidate, 1962 - ★★★

This is a strange film. I knew the broad outline, or thought I did. An American gets brainwashed and ‘turned’ by the ‘other side’ during the Cold War, and then gets into the position of running for president. That’s not quite it, as it turns out, but it’s not far off. 

The thing that surprised me, compared to how something like this would be done by a modern filmmaker, was how explicit the brainwashing was. Most modern writers and directors would, I think, be more indirect, so you’d be thinking, ‘Is he or isn’t he?’ throughout. Here it was very clear that he was, so the question was more, ‘What’s he going to do?’

Which is a perfectly fine way to tell the story, too. It was OK, through not as good as I expected, and there were some very odd pieces of dialogue (‘Are you Arabic?’) and a couple of strange jumps in the plot. 

Worth a look, though, if you haven’t seen it.

See in Letterboxd

Rusty's Return

Well that answers the question I asked in July. At least the bit I described as ‘arguably more important’. Russell T Davies is going to be the new showrunner.

That’s an interesting decision, and one I have mixed feelings about. At his best he was great, and some of the things he’s done since have been stellar. And I’m astonished to find that I’ve never mentioned either Years and Years or It’s a Sin here. Not least because I can remember recommending at least one of them online. Maybe it was just on Twitter, but I don’t originate many tweets there. Nearly everything that isn’t a reply comes from here.

Anyway, the great RTD is coming back, like the 456 in Torchwood. And I’m sure it’ll be great. I just think it’s kind of sad if the BBC couldn’t find someone new to take over. There must be plenty of people willing to take it on. Both willing and capable? That’s another question. But hell, JMS1 offered. He’s certainly capable, and it would have been amazing.

Also it’s a shame that RTD won’t get to work with Jodie Whittaker, because I think that could’ve been quite a combo.

Then there’s the reaction on much of Who-related Twitter, which seems to be, ‘Doctor Who is saved!’ When it doesn’t need saving due to having been really good for the last season and pretty good the season before that.

Anyway, I’m sure it’ll be fun.

  1. Of Babylon 5 fame. ↩︎

Dissertation Submitted

Just an hour ago I submitted my dissertation for my creative writing MA.

This means my course is effectively over. The novel is far from complete, though: I have what I think will be about a quarter of it. So we press on. But for now, I’m taking to the hammock.