Monday, January 24, 2011

The Squids Are Alright, Pt 1. China Mieville - Kraken (book review)

When I heard fantasy weird fiction author China Mieville speak back in 2009, he was talking 'bout a tentacular revolution. Culture, he said, had appropriated the octopus and the squid as uniquely plastic metaphors for Otherness.

So, recall the B-movie staple of the giant squid, implacable atom-warped force of revenging nature. His predecessors in gothic literature, like Lovecraft's octopus-demon Cthulhu, as well as his descendents – any alien or mutant worth their salt wouldn't be seen dead on a rampage without their many appendages. And that's even before we get to the queasy sexualisation of the tentacle in Japanese hentai.

However, CM was mainly interested in the use of the celephapod to represent social and political threat. In his talk, he drew on warnings in the early twentieth century of the tentacles of imperialism, fascism, communism; all wrapping themselves around their nation-prey.

This curious tradition was revived in recent years with the endearing description of the investment bank Goldman Sachs as 'a vampire squid with its tentacles around the face of humanity.'

So, fluid in form, defiantly inhuman, they give us the heebie-jeebies in so many ways. Octopi, that is, not investment bankers (for the purposes of this review, at least).

Even the creeping banalisation of traditional horror hasn't quite diminished their impact. The Disneyification of the Lovecraft mythos – hello, My Little Cthulhu – has yet to erode the WTF-ery, the squick of the squid, that the original evokes.

We are still suckers for suckers.

And if anyone could get back to the richness, strangeness and political content of the metaphor, you'd think it would be China Mieville. Card carrying socialist. King of the steampunk mutants. Master of intelligent biohorror. One of the few vital signs in fantasy literature in the last decade.

Kraken, Mieville's contribution to our body of squid-terature, does its bit to prove this true. The kraken cult at the heart of the book Is a lovely bit of counterfactual theology, with some sharp questions about why anyone would bother worshipping an uncaring god (answer – because humanity is nothing if not perverse).

One of the chief delights of any of his books is exactly this sort of window-dressing – what Adam Roberts has referred to as worldbling. So, Mieville creates an alternate London the reader can revel in – a dense underworld of occult cops and robbers, secretive cults and wannabe demiurges.

This elaboration of a new world is not exactly uncommon in fantasy literature – after all Tolkien spent years working on the backdrop for Lord of the Rings. Unlike most of his peers, however, Mieville isn't just recycling cliches from a Dungeons & Dragons (or more aptly in this case, World of Darkness) campaign. He brings a playfulness, a delight in unlikely combinations, and a love of ideas.

Who else would come up with the idea of a general strike by wizard's familiars in the face of exploitation? Or deftly satirise the cliches of police procedural TV shows when summoning the spirits of law and order by burning old videos of The Sweeney?

Alright, maybe Terry Pratchett or Tim Powers would. But the point is that this kind of talent and originality is rare in a genre which often feels like a downhill ski run through as many cliché gates as possible.

A special mention also to Mieville's gift with emotional heft. The subplot about a grieving girlfriend investigating occult London for the first time has real tug and resonance and a reminder that what we have here is a proper writer and everything.

The plot – in as far as I can talk about it without too many spoilers – concerns the theft of a giant squid specimen from the Natural History Museum and what happens to his curator, innocent abroad Billy Harrow. The squid mostly gets relegated to McGuffin status – it's what most of the cast are chasing and each sees it differently. I'm still trying to decide if this is cleverness on Mieville's part (look – it can represent anything!) or a missed opportunity for more tentacular action.

Billy's adventures are sufficiently circuitious and fast-paced that at very few points in Kraken is it entirely clear what is going on. This is broadly a good thing – the book is nothing if not exciting. However, in the same way that Raymond Chandler used to advance the plot by introducing another man with a gun to menace his protagonist, Mieville's default is to introduce a new gang of zanies. So, if it's Chapter 9, it must be the Londonamancers/Chaos Nazis/Gunfarmers/delete as appropriate.

And regular readers will find much that is familiar in Kraken: the obsession with transforming people into something else, preferably something icky; the renactment of scenes and motifs from left-wing history, the recasting of London in fantastic form. Mieville has his tropes, to be sure, and it's good that they are distinctly his. But he's too good an author to have to repeatedly indulge his literary fetishes.

Before you ask – no, I didn't like his previous book, The City and The City, which did stage something of a breakout from core Mievilliana. But I applaud his intention in writing it.

My favourite Mieville books are those where the plot is relatively straightforward – the more direct the approach, the more it can accommodate the weight of all that baroque world creation and intellectual playfulness. So, Perdido Street Station, still his best, is at core just the best bug hunt ever.

Kraken, on the other hand, has the motor of a gangland thriller cum detective novel under the occult bonnet. One of our squids is missing – whodunnit? This is too complex to bear Mieville's usual digressions and flourishes and as a result the book felt to me as a reader like an exercise in increasingly complicated plate-spinning.

A lesser author could have got 4 or 5 bad books out of Kraken. A better author, which I hope Mieville is on his way to becoming, could have got 4 or 5 more focussed, intellectually richer ones.

If this seems unduly harsh, let me reiterate that this book remains a fertile piece of work, a bold reimagining of London and a good yarn. Any book which compares religions with criminal gangs and runs with it for all its worth, pausing to stage a faked apocalypse, has a lot going for it.

And even if it's not one of his very best, Kraken's still helping to drag fantasy kicking and screaming out of the Tolkien trap. Which is a Very Good and Necessary thing indeed. Long may Mieville continue to write like the bastard offspring of Roald Dahl and M John Harrison.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Tron Legacy (or Sorry, I haven't a CLU) reviewed

What a mess Tron Legacy is. Beautiful, spectacular, expensive, but mainly once you get past the space disco bling it's an almighty mess.

But before we start POKEing Tron where it hurts, let's take a moment to salute the visuals, which not only look gorgeous but come together to form a unified aesthetic. Call it wire-frame Wonderland, call it New Romantic cyberspace, this is a graphic designer's film if ever I saw one. Part and parcel of the Troniverse is also the Daft Punk soundtrack, which slots beautifully into the visuals.

When the film shifts gears and moves into one of the big action sequences like the light cycle battle, the overall effect is stunning. Tron Legacy comes alive. Or, as my partner in crime put it, makes like the Stig on acid. This was the first film I'd seen in IMAX 3D and it was definitely worth adding the extra dimension.

Which is fortunate, as all this techno-flash superstructure managed to distract me some of the time from the broken base of the plot. Let's just pick a few of my least favourite moments (spoiler alert!).

1. Oh noez, thar r Nazis in mah computr

Yes, midway through the film, the planned electronic invasion of meatspace (I know, I know, we'll get to that) is about to kick off. But first, here's a pastiche of a Nuremberg rally a la Triumph of the Will where the genocidal Big Bad does his exposition. Just in case you haven't got it, this scene hammers home that the bad guys are bad using the laziest cultural shorthand available.

By St Turing, this manages to both mildly insult my intelligence and vaguely offend me at the same time.

2. Isomorphic Algorithms say what now?

Or, translated from Tron's world-bling, autonomously evolving programs which will change the world in mysterious ways not specified by the film. Mainly introduced in flashback and exposition, I'm not sure even Alec Guiness could have made this credible or comprehensible. Also, other than giving CLU (the Big Bad and Jeff Bridges impersonator) a reason to be mad, it's irrelevant to 90% of the plot.

3. The Looking Glass works both ways, the head hits the desk

OK. So the lazer which shoots Flynn Sr and Jr into the Matrix, sorry, the Grid, can also shoot programs back into the real world. Say what now? And this is how CLU and his merry band of bits will take over the world?

I'm sorry, but this is just dumb. You could have written a smart script with a sassy invasion plan but here you are, just reprising Wierd Science with added electro-fascism. Yawnola.

And don't even get me started on the cheesy teenage male wish-fulfilment ending where Flynn Jr gets to take his cute video game girlfriend through the mirror. And then takes her to see her first sunrise. I haven't seen a worse ending to an action movie since Kate Beckinsdale's face appeared in the clouds at the end of Van bleeding Helsing. Bleeeurrgh.

4. Plot amputation

One of the good things about the original Tron was the cute mirroring of virtual and real world power structures. So, for example, the CEO of Microsoft, sorry ENCOM, was also the number 2 Bad Guy in the Grid.

The sequel wastes time introducing a new bad CEO and the son of the original bad CEO at the start of the film. And then proceeds to ignore them completely for the rest of the film. And we're left wondering whether this was a botched plotline amputation, or just reflective of the general incompetence of the film as a whole.

I could go on. I could moan about the fact that Bruce Boxleitner is made to sleep with his pager (yes, his pager, in the noughties) in order for the plot to work. I could object to the fact that there's not a single line of memorable dialogue in the film. I could rant about the fact that instead of a smart but exciting film about the relationship between the virtual and the real worlds, what we have is a father-son psychodrama (only without the drama) in Neverland. But I'll spare you.

Jeff Bridges gets through the film alright, walking a line mid-way between Yoda and The Dude as the film's token wise old guy. Come to think of it, I would totally watch a film where The Dude was zapped into the Grid and CLU p**ssed on his virtual carpet. But I digress...

Michael Sheen, the other good actor slumming it here, seems to think that he'd signed on for a remake of Flash Gordon and goes for stratospheric levels of camp in his role as a nightclub impressario. It might be an implicit critique of the rest of the film, given everyone else is Very. Serious. Indeed. But then again, it could just be the rotten screenplay. Again.

What's most frustrating is that, taken individually, none of the film's faults are irremediable or, crucially, probably would have been that expensive to fix. Memo to Disney: if you're going to spend the GDP of a small island nation on the FX you might as well throw a few more bob at the screenplay while you're at it. It pays dividends and here's why.

A good fantasy works when the world it creates and the plot it uses is credible. Not realistic, naturally, but a sufficiently well-designed, internally coherent 'castle in the sky' to allow the viewer to suspend disbelief. Lord of the Rings has this, so does the original Star Wars trilogy, even (so help me) Harry Potter has it.

Tron Legacy, on the other hand, may look and sound very good indeed, but the emperor's neon robes and data disk are mysteriously AWOL.