Tag: pirates

Top Ten Films

Have I really never done this post before? OK, then…

  1. Les Miserables, dir. Tom Hooper. This is the one with Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman and (mmm) Eddie Redmayne. The first time I saw it I was so wonderstruck I nearly walked in front of a taxi. The music is a cut above that of most musicals, the story is an acknowledged heart-breaker, and I will never see a better Marius than Eddie Remayne, though I admit he is not really a singer.
  2. The Return of the King, dir. Peter Jackson. This film has a gazillion endings, and they are all perfect, and then comes that most wonderful of songs, Annie Lennox’s “Into the West”. There are things Jackson gets wrong (*side-eyes Faramir’s truncated character arc), but in essence the film captures the heart of the books in a way that’s sadly rare for book-to-film adaptations.
  3. The Fellowship of the Ring, dir. Peter Jackson. You can see how this list is going to go down, can’t you? (Though the Hobbit films are an abomination against all that is good and holy.) I love the lightness of Fellowship, our introduction to hobbits who are still (relatively) carefree, the character dynamics of the Fellowship which we don’t see in later films. Fellowship is still an adventure. They’ve yet to slog through the battlefields of the second film in the trilogy…
  4. The Two Towers, dir. Peter Jackson. This is really only here for completeness’ sake: Towers is my least favourite book in the trilogy just as it’s my least favourite film of the three. Helm’s Deep bores me. Frodo and Sam walk through the same carbon-fibre set of rocks about a zillion times. Andy Serkis’ Gollum, though, is a masterpiece.
  5. Stardust, dir. Matthew Vaughn. Stardust is based on Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, so naturally it is secretly sexist. (It’s totally OK to kidnap an injured woman if she turns out to be your True Love.) But, oh, how delightfully fluffy this film is! Its Fairyland is wild and dangerous and strange but not too strange, and it’s full of everything you want to find in Fairyland: princes and witches and weird bloody necklaces and desperate horseback rides and magical markets and epic landscapes, unscrupulous merchants and captive princesses and sky pirates and Babylon candles. It’s funny and magical and I love it with all my fannish heart.
  6. The Matrix, dir. the Wachowski sisters. I like The Matrix because it is cool. That is all. I love the cyberpunk aesthetic. I think bullet time looks awesome. I like the way the hackers’ handles all have deeper meanings. The soundtrack is perfect. Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss both look very attractive in their badass cyberpunk outfits. And the film manages to pull off “and the World was Saved by Love” with style.
  7. Cloud Atlas, dir. the Wachowski sisters. Cloud Atlas was controversial among the critics, but I was already a fan of the novel, so I was halfway there. I came out of the cinema after watching Cloud Atlas feeling like I did when I finished the book: like I’d glimpsed some overarching structure to the universe, that there was some ambitious and elusive truth amid the disconnected flashes of experience that make up all our histories.
  8. The Social Network, dir. David Fincher. The Social Network is carried by Jesse Eisenberg, an astonishingly high-energy actor who specialises in making arseholes supremely watchable. Plus, the screenwriter is Aaron Sorkin, he of The West Wing, and the film zings with his swift, intelligent, witty dialogue.
  9. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, dir. Russell T. Davies. This is my favourite Shakespeare adaptation: gloriously camp and colourful, diverse and carnivalesque, a flash of bright left-wing hope against the thunderclouds of Trump and Brexit and irreversible climate change. I cried at the end, so defiantly triumphant was it.
  10. The Muppet Christmas Carol, dir. Brian Henson. YES, I am a grown English student and I still watch this every Christmas (much to the disgruntlement of my sister, who is naturally much cooler than I am). It’s so Christmassy and delightful! And is surprisingly faithful, in story and in spirit (no pun intended), to Dickens’ original.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

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Top Ten Things on My Reading Wishlist

  1. More books by Marisha Pessl. I think I’m just in that kind of reading mood at the moment: I want twisty, Gothicky, sparky novels about people who think too much about things.
  2. More New Crobuzon novels. I just love China Mieville’s steampunky, politically fraught city: like all real cities, it’s hypnotic, oppressive, dirty and alive.
  3. A book about a supernatural detective in a real city. I appreciate this probably already exists, but I haven’t found it yet. I think the detective story is a great way of exploring a new world; and I’m fascinated by urban stories that channel the energies of the city.
  4. Space pirates. I think I actually want a novel about The Mechanisms. Because that would be awesome.
  5. A book set on a ship. Ships are just fascinating, aren’t they? Like little worlds of their own, warring against the elements. And ship crew dynamics tend to be really interesting too.
  6. A grown-up fairytale. Something perfectly formed and resonant and gorgeous like Catherynne Valente’s writing, and something a bit like The Hobbit too: “So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their ending.” Something that keeps Fairyland mysterious and strange and wonderful and dangerous.
  7. Decopunk. Like Valente’s Radiance: the rage and social revolution of steampunk combined with the aesthetics of the 1920s.
  8. Books about unconventional relationships. Because I think it’s important to tell stories that resist our cultural norms and create new paradigms; because our relationship norms are based so much in old-fashioned misogyny and power imbalances.
  9. More books about science and society. What I loved about Greg Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket was that science and culture aren’t opposed, they’re inextricably intertwined. That’s how science works, or how it should work, anyway: it’s important that we remember that science isn’t some obscure process carried out by people in white rooms, it’s something that affects all of our lives, all the time.
  10. Steampunk books! I’m building up a collection of steampunk coffee-table books, basically, for writing inspiration and just because I like looking at the pictures.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Music Review: The Bifrost Incident

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: Serenity

This review contains spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

Firefly Review: The Message

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

Joss Whedon and Tim Minear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: A Darker Shade of Magic

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

V. E. Schwab

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

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

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

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

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

Firefly Review: War Stories

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

Cheryl Cain

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

The story goes like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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