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The Scar, by China Miéville (Books 2007, 6)

.A mindfucking mindfuck of all mindfucks. A great, big, sprawling book, and yet one which can have a curious sense of claustrophobia at times.

That’s because nearly all the action takes place on the floating city of Armada. It’s a big floating city, but it is, nonetheless, essentially a big ship, in the middle of a great ocean, and there’s nowhere for the characters to go.

What they do while stuck there, is where the fun lies.

While I was reading this, my beloved got our son a copy of China’s first book “for younger readers”, Un Lun Dun. He finished it over a long weekend’s trip to Cornwall, and I read the review of it in that Saturday’s Guardian (yes, we buy our kids books in their week of release, why do you ask? Like much of the country, we did the same in July (though to be fair, that wasn’t just for the kids.))

The review ended with a statement of the old canard about SF&F having no characters, “and that’s why some readers like them”, to paraphrase. And while that’s kind of insulting (and not even true for Un Lun Dun), there is some truth in it. But then, that’s not what we’re here for: you don’t come to a book like this to read about the inner turmoil of a North London writer (I can get that by not reading. OK, East rather than North, and would-be, but still.) You read books like this to take you somewhere else; to experience something other; to see something you can’t see down your street.

And you certainly get your money’s worth with this one.

What Exactly Does it Mean to Book a Train Ticket, Anyway?

I had a slightly weird experience with train bookings a while back. Twice I’ve booked tickets via The Trainline between London and Glasgow (once on my own, once for the whole family). On both cases the tickets arrived with the legend “No Seat” printed in the spaces for the seat details. In both cases I phoned the company and was able to arrange seats (with greater or lesser difficulty and need to switch services)

But the weirdness to my mind is that on The Trainline’s website, you have to select specific trains when you’re booking (even if the ticket you are buying is flexible enough that you can travel on a different service in the end). So you’re always “booking” a particular train; but not, automatically, booking a seat. What, exactly, does it mean to do that?

I mean, let’s assume that all seats on the train are full when you get on, as they usually are on routes like London to Glasgow; is there a particular circle of floor space that is yours? You have a booking on that service, after all: it must mean something.

I recall, years ago, when I used to travel up and down these lines a lot, that there were a lot of services, especially at weekend peak times, on which seat bookings were “mandatory”. There were still people without bookings who got on and crammed in between the carriages, so I’m not entirely sure what that meant, either. But at least it meant that when you booked a ticket (at a station or a travel agent: no web in those days), you also booked a seat.

And having booked it, you nearly always got it; British Rail had its problems, but incompatible systems between the booking agents and the different train operating companies wasn’t one of them, as it seems to be now. The Trainline’s other strangeness was that, after phoning to add the seat bookings, I was sent the details for the outgoing service (on Virgin Trains), but not those for the return (on GNER). When that happened on the first of those trips, I assumed it was a mistake, so I mentioned it when I phoned for the second one. I was told that it was unavoidable because GNER use a different system, and they (The Trainline) were only able to book on paper (and then, what, post the details to GNER?)

I blame the Tories, of course: privatisation was always an appalling idea.

A New Low For Cattle Class

I flew up to Scotland the other weekend, by RyanAir. On the way back the plane was a 737-800. It was the same kind of plane as on the flight up, but the inside was dramatically different.

Flying north we had standard velour-covered (or whatever you’d call it: fuzzy cloth) seats, and standard seat-back pockets made of criss-crossed bungee cord.

But southbound we had nasty vinyl-covered seats. Vinyl! Who’d have thought you could still cover seats in such a thing? It looked like the inside of a 1970s Vauxhall Viva!

Worse than that, though: there were no seat-back pockets at all! None!

This arrangement means that the little bits and pieces you want to have to hand — bottle of water, MP3 player, book or magazine, notebook — all have to go on the floor under the seat in front when you’re not holding them.

As well as being inconvenient, those things on the floor all now constitute an added safety risk: if there was some kind of problem before takeoff or after landing, they’d all be sliding about, just perfect for people to trip over or slip on.

So, reduced comfort, convenience and safety. Nice one, RyanAir.

A Bridge Not Far Enough

Spoilers ahead.

I watched Bridge to Terabithia last weekend. It is probably the saddest film I’ve ever seen, and despite all the plaudits it has received, it has at its core, I think, a heart of darkness. It is not a bad film, but it has a dark soul.

I came to the film cold. I’ve not read the book; indeed, I’d never even heard of it when the film came out. The book is described in terms of being ‘much-loved‘ and a ‘classic‘. It was published in 1977, when I was 12 or 13. So I expect I missed it because I was ‘too old’ for children’s books, and not yet old enough again for them. And I had other concerns in that year.

So all I knew about it was the ‘from the creators of Narnia’ tag line, a quick read of the blurb, and the fact that my daughter (6) was interested in it.

As the early scenes unfolded I realised that that I had read a review of it, though. All that I recalled was a complaint to the effect that in the book, the girl was supposed to be plain, even boyish-looking, while in the film she was Hollywood-pretty (if dressed a little unconventionally compared to her schoolmates).

I think that review explains why my opinion of the film differs so significantly from that of most reviewers: they all seem to have read the book. Inevitably they review the film in comparison to it, and fuelled by their knowledge of the plot.

So they can describe it as ‘bittersweet’, as having an ‘uplifting’ ending; even as ‘transcendent’ (I think that last came from one of the mini-documentaries on the DVD). Because as they watched, they knew what was coming.

I’ve often thought that some films — the later Harry Potter ones are particular examples — must be all but incoherent to anyone who hasn’t first read the book on which they are based. The Potters can get away with it, because so many have read the books first. But in general a film — or any adaptation from one medium to another — must work on its own. It is a separate, new creation, and has to stand or fall as such.

In one sense at least, Terabithia fails on this account.

The trouble is not lack of coherence; rather it is excess of impact, and lack of recovery time. There is certainly some foreshadowing: it is plain that something bad is going to happen. But the tragedy when it comes — and make no mistake, the story is a tragedy — is too deep, too dark, too sudden. Yes, true, that’s how it would be in real life; and I’m not suggesting that movie viewers, including children, should be completely protected from darkness, tragedy or loss. But here, suddenly, shatteringly, we are no longer watching the film that we thought we were.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. But the film’s fatal flaw — or at least the cause of its failure to achieve the uplift suggested by reviewers — comes after the plunge into darkness.

It is the lack of recovery time, and the content of what time there is. Yes, a significant amount of time for the characters is compressed into a few swiftly-edited scenes. Perhaps enough time is represented for the boy, Jess, to come to terms with his loss, or at least to begin to do so. But it is not enough time for us to do so.

And perhaps because the fantasy elements were (rightly) understated earlier on, we have what feels like a tacked-on fantasy ending. And it’s not even the tacked-on fantasy ending we might want. Me, I’d have liked Jess, the talented artist, to to have ripped out the page of the film’s continuity, said, “No!” and sketched a new one.

That, of course, would have made for a saccharine ending, like the false ending in Brazil, or the original cut of Blade Runner. It would have been deemed a mistake (not least because of differing from the book), or at least have been very hard to make work. It would have betrayed the story.

But the ending that we do have betrays the story too, I think, in a different way. The descent (ascent?) into fantasy may show that Jess had become closer to his little sister; but it writes Leslie out of his memories of Terabithia. It ceases to be their magical place, and therefore fails to honour her memory.

Of course it is all to help him to come to terms with his loss; but as his Dad tells him, it’s by remembering what was special about her that he can keep her alive.

Above all, though, it all happens too quickly: maybe we, the viewers, could have had just a little more time?

I can only assume that the book does, in fact, provide a more gentle exit for its readers, for it to be so popular. Though of course, you can take a book at your own pace.

Yet despite — or more likely, because of — all of the above, it’s a film that will stay with me for a long time; that I’ll probably watch again; and whose source-book I’ll certainly seek out.

The Return Of Some Futurists From The Past

It seems that The Rezillos, mighty purveyors of sci-fi (I use the term deliberately, and very carefully) pop-punk reformed somewhere along the line. And they’re playing right here in London on Saturday. At the Carling Academy in Islington, to be precise.

Seeing them live after all this time would be particularly fine, as I know them best through their second and final album, Mission Accomplished… But The Beat Goes On, which is a live album.

It was recorded at the Glasgow Apollo, which is now, sadly, long-demolished. But before all that, it was where I went to my first couple of gigs.

I don’t really do all the recent wave of reforming bands (I didn’t even go to see the Velvet Underground when they reformed, which I regret (but I’d been burned by one of Lou’s solo performances)), but I think I might make an exception in this case.

That said, I’ve just remembered that we’re invited to a party that night, and there are two other gigs on that evening that I’d like to go to (Patti Smith and Richard Thompson). Damn.

Still, the party is in Islington too, so maybe something can be arranged.

The Prestige, by Christopher Priest (Books 2007, 5)

The most annoying thing about The Prestige is the way it ends; though I can see that there was no real reason to continue it after that point. The story is told, all that can reasonably be revealed is revealed (without going into preposterous and unnecessary details).

The book is finished; the tale (which, as I’m sure you know, is about Victorian magicians, and Nikola Tesla) is told.

And yet I still thought, as I reached the last page, “Aw, I want more!” like a kid that wants another bedtime story.

Which is no bad thing, it’s fair to say. Better, as a writer (or almost anything else) to leave them wanting more than to outstay your welcome.

And with that thought in mind, I’ll just say: highly recommended. I’m out.

The Steep Approach to Garbadale, by Iain Banks (Books 2007, 4)

It’s not The Crow Road, but then, what is?

In my opinion, the quality of Banksie’s non-SF work rose in shallow, slightly wiggly, climb from a high start, to a “can do no wrong” plateau that includes The Bridge, Espedair Street and Complicity, as well as the aforementioned. Thereafter it dropped a bit (but who can blame him, after that lot?) But it never got bad. (His SF took a different trajectory, and as far as I can tell, it’s still climbing.)

So what of this book? It’s a family drama, I suppose you’d say, with a mystery at its heart. Not a “whodunit”, so much as “what got done?”

Slipping into Banksie’s world is like pulling on an old, comfy jumper; or maybe a favourite leather jacket would be more appropriate. So we get recognisable characters, dialogue that you could hear in any pub or home in Scotland, and just a touch of mystery.

The main problem, perhaps, is that there’s no great threat over the characters (they might decide to sell the family games business to a big American company, and some of them are against that happening). So we don’t have any real sense of potential doom. Still, though, finding the answer to the mystery is fun enough, and it’s a compelling enough read that I got through it in a couple of days.

In a book like this, the pleasure is in the journey more than the destination.

Rock and No Roll

The people who are queuing outside branches of Northern Rock are fooling themselves, and if anything are likely to trigger the problem they fear.

I must admit that, if you had asked me a few days ago, I would probably have said that I thought that the Bank of England already backed the banks to the extent of protecting people’s deposits. Naive of me, perhaps; but after the Bank extended its line of credit to Northern Rock, and particularly since last night’s guarantee by the Chancellor, that their money will be covered by the government, it’s clear to an uninvolved bystander that they’d be better off staying at home and waiting. If the government can’t cover anything that might happen to NR, then we’ve got a much more serious problem than one wobbly bank on our hands.

Like the collapse of the pound.

And it would take the euro down with it; and probably the US dollar, and hence the world economy.

I’m not an economist, and you can call me complacent; but that’s not going to happen.

So leave the queues, people, and go on home (if you’ve got that much in savings, you obviously don’t have to go to work). And next time, remember that proverb about eggs and baskets.

The only ‘Transformer’ I really like is an album by Lou Reed

Took the kids to see the Transformers movie tonight. It’s not a franchise that I grew up with, of course, but my two older nephews were into them when they were kids, and so I was aware of them even before my son started watching the more recent cartoons a few years ago.

But I gather that there is a whole generation of twenty-somethings — maybe even thirty-somethings — who went to see the movie with a sense of worry, even trepidation, that it would stamp a great big metal foot all over their memories. And I gather that, largely, for them, it did not. I had heard quite good things about it (or I thought I had); and the trailer looked great.

So I was mostly disappointed. I didn’t hate it all the way through; nothing as extreme as that. I was just disappointed at how weak and overlong it was; and mainly by the American-military porn. A great deal of it was showing the fantasticness and coolness of American military technology. I’m not sure that’s really what I want to see in a film I take my kids to (though as it also revealed that all human technology came from reverse-engineering the frozen Megatron, they may have been sending mixed signals).

Also, since it starts with a US military base in the Middle East being attacked (by a giant alien fighting robot, and in Qatar, admittedly, but still), you might reasonably expect there to be some political point. But there wasn’t.

Unless, perhaps, it was this. The grunts (actually Special Forces, so I’m not sure we should call them grunts) were shown as cool, professional, skillful and competent. The secret government agency in charge of crashed alien artifacts, and the FBI, were shown as feeble, useless and pathetic; easily outwitted by a couple of teenagers and, err, a group of giant alien fighting robots. So, soldiers good, government bad, or something.

Also, one bit that really surprised me was when Megatron and Optimus Prime were fighting: Megatron turned into a plane, Optimus Prime grabbed him, and together they crashed into the side of a tower block and slo-mo’d all the way through it and out the other side. 9/11 can’t be as raw a wound in the American psyche as I had thought.

We could have done without the whole teen romance thing, but it’s an American summer blockbuster, so what can you expect? And we could have done without at least half an hour of the start.

It’s also incredibly visually noisy, and the Transformers themselves, especially the Decepticons (the baddies) are so similar when they’re in robot mode that it was really hard to tell what was going on at times.

But then, what was going on didn’t really matter that much.

The kids enjoyed it though, and it was a nice treat to end the summer holidays with; but since we started them with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and middled them with The Simpsons, I don’t think it really stands up.

Still, it’s definitely been ‘The Summer of Film’, as they were calling it in the trailers a while back.