Friday 18 May 2012

Old Man's War by John Scalzi

This novel has been on my to be read list since it first came out about seven years ago, but I've only just got round to reading it, and it was worth the wait.

The novel is one of the most old-fashioned pieces of science fiction I've read in ages, reminding me of the books I used to read and love when younger. Most modern sf I've tried recently is either too literate, or too political, or too flashy, or too weird, or very long, or determined to prove that the author knows vast amounts about scientific stuff. The end result is stories that fail to grip and are just too serious to entertain with none of that sense of excitement and wonder that I crave. Thankfully Scalzi's novel is none of these things.

The book starts with an opening line that has been rightly acclaimed as being one of the best:

I did two things on my seventy-fifty birthday: I visited my wife's grave, then I joined the army.

If the main purpose of the opening few words is to make sure you read on, then that works as after that start you have to find out where the tale is going. As it turns out, it's nowhere new as the story is a familiar one of super-soldiers going off to fight a pointless war on a far flung planet. There are several templates for this type of story. There's the Starship Troopers angle of war is great, so let's kick some alien butt with our big guns. Then there's the Forever War angle of war is hell. And there's something in between, which is where Old Man's War places itself. I've never felt even the slightest urge to see Avatar, but I'd guess it used the same story that this novel uses.

The hero gets a new and improved body, learns how to use it, goes to war against some big bad aliens, and gradually learns that there's more going on than he first thought. I gather there's more books that develop and explain the wider story, but I was content with this small-scale vision. Over half the book is taken up with the hero adapting to his new life, but the story never drags as it's told with gentle humour and an eye for interesting scenes. The first person narrative makes the lead character interesting and the story is clever enough to acknowledge the war story clich├ęs it's using without coming over as trite. Best of all for modern science fiction, it's short and it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Friday 11 May 2012


The second series of Episodes starts tonight and I'm intrigued to see if any changes will be made. I enjoyed the first series, which was a promising one, but it was also frustrating as it never quite scaled the heights that it kept threatening to achieve. Although as the people behind the show are tv comedy veterans, I wonder if the show did exactly what it was intended to do, so the second series won't provide more focus on the bits that worked and instead will be pretty much the same as the first. Being contrary to expectations did appear to be the main focus of a show that started by deliberately adopting the worst possible title for Google searching.

The premise behind the show is a good one with plenty of material for humour, if anyone wants to use it. A couple, played by Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig, write a successful British sitcom that gets bought by an American studio that then hires them to write a new pilot in Hollywood. So, producers and writers and focus groups get their claws into the format. Within days Matt LeBlanc is hired to play the aged, overweight school-teacher previously portrayed by Richard Griffiths and bit by bit every single element that made the British sitcom good is removed to leave a program that bears no resemblance to the original.

Obviously this process has happened for real, such as Red Dwarf which generated a female cat, a hunky Rimmer and a non-smeggy version of Lister. Or Men Behaving Badly with Gary and Tony being executives living in a spacious apartment with glamorous girlfriends and who on no account ever behave badly. But the final punchline to this process is that despite a few groan-inducing failures, nine times of out ten the US produce sitcoms that are funnier than UK ones. So a UK / US co-production with this premise can mine plenty of cross Atlantic, culture clash humour about the differing approaches, except strangely it didn't.

Aside from a brief chat about American sitcoms needing to create a premise that'll work for 200 episodes while UK ones only need to cope with about 20 episodes, there's little focus on the actual mechanics of writing. There's a running gag involving a terrible producer doing terrible British accents and making terrible decisions, and quite a bit of time is wasted poking fun at Hollywood excesses, which is a subject that doesn’t travel well. But for the most part the show is a warm drama in which the three leads either bond or argue, and the best comedy comes from Matt either living up to his Joey 'how you doing?' image or playing against it. Taken as light drama with some mildly funny character exchanges played out in awkward situations created by crass and insensitive people, the show works much better than as the sitcom about a sitcom it's billed to be.

Series 2 continues the story after the pilot, against all expectations and justice, has been aceepted for a full run and, with the show already having burnt its bridges (and the stated rules for the sitcom within a sitcom) by resolving the will they / won't they aspect of the story, it'll be interesting to see where they take it.

Monday 7 May 2012

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

The biggest problem I have with Fantasy novels is working out when to read them. Most Epic Fantasy these days runs to about ten volumes and usually takes about twenty years to be written, so if I read the first book in a series as soon as it comes out, many years of waiting lie ahead along with an increasing strain on my memory. A good example of this is George RR Martin's series. I read Game of Thrones when it first came out in the mid-90s, leaving me in a bemused state now that A Song of Ice and Fire has suddenly taken off as I can’t remember enough about the early novels to join in any debates with the new fans. Then there's the fact that the last two books in the series have been so brain-numbingly awful I've lost all the enthusiasm that I had for the characters about 17 years ago.

On the other hand waiting until the series is over could take a lifetime. I read Katherine Kurtz's first Deryni novel in the early 70s and that series is still ongoing. Even the middle line is fraught with danger as after massive acclaim for the first book, later books often come out to derision leaving you wondering if you should bother embarking on a journey that'll eventually fall flat on its face. There is no answer to this conundrum, and so I take every series that interests me on its own merits and Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastards series gave me particular angst.

The Lies of Locke Lamora was one of the most promising books I've read in a long time, except when I read it, it was a one-off book and only later did the author announce there would be further books in the series. At the time this delighted me as I reckoned I'd finally found the author of my dreams. Locke featured a fascinating fantasy world in which the author never data dumped an explanation of the rules of the world and instead let us learn about it through the eyes of the hero. It had a twisty plot that to my delight surprised and fooled me every time, and it had bucket loads of action, humour, appealing characters along with brilliantly staged and original scenes. In short it had everything, including plenty of forgivable faults in what was clearly a first novel, leading to the feeling that the series would get even better. If Locke ever gets filmed, I should imagine the pitch would say it's Ocean's 11 meets Lord of the Rings meets Oliver Twist.

With the promise that the series would expand to seven books, I therefore put off reading book two until I was reasonably sure that book three wasn't far off, which now appears to be the case. But after the utter joy that was Locke, Red Seas under Red Skies, despite a good start, is one of the most disappointing tales I've ever read. The book picks up where the last one ended, which in itself is a big problem as the first book ends in a conclusive way. But any feeling that a sequel is a bad idea quickly disappears as the story establishes another twisty plot that lands the hero in another impossible dilemma in which his only chance of survival is to complete an impossible task that is sure to get him killed. Except he has a cunning plan to double-cross the bad guys, except the bad guys know he plans to double-cross them, which the hero has worked out and so his bluff is to call their bluff…

A quarter of the way into the book everything is building nicely into another action-packed twist-laden heist story, but then all the plot pieces that have been put in place are suddenly dumped in favour of a far less interesting story that has nothing to do with the set-up. I like tales that wrong-foot me, and Locke did that numerous times, but the misdirection has to integrate into a complete narrative. In Red Skies, there is no misdirection. After a hundred and fifty pages the story just restarts. The hero leaves an interesting town filled with fascinating characters and goes to sea, where he pretends to be a pirate for obscure reasons that I didn’t understand. Then he spends the rest of the novel having a whole heap of unrelated adventures with various friendly and unconvincing pirates. Every time something interesting starts to develop a new danger is dumped on him that has nothing to do with the previous problems and the story lurches off in another direction while the developing conflicts are forgotten about never to be mentioned again.

This structure of a new danger followed by a resolution every chapter drags on until the author appears to realize that the whole point of the novel has been forgotten about for about 400 pages and the last chapter is looming. So a main character is killed off in a seriously underwhelming fashion, seemingly because the author was as bored as I was with all the 'Ha-ha-ha, me hearties' stuff and the hero hurries back to dry land to face all the unresolvable problems where, in a few pages, with a single bound everyone is free and everything is resolved, and the book ends. I'm used to fantasy series going astray after a few books, but I've never come across a series that started so superbly and descended so quickly. Despite that disappointment, I still hope to read later books in the series, but I'll need to read a lot of glowing reviews first before I risk delving into book 3: The Republic of Thieves.