Clarke Award Winner

Well, I only got through two-and-a-bit of the Clarke Award shortlist, which is far from what I intended, but life intervened. Anyway, the winner has been announced, and (gleaned from Torque Control), the 2009 Arthur C. Clarke Award goes to… Song of Time by Ian R. MacLeod.

As it happens, this was one of the books I did blog about; you can read what I thought about it over here. I liked it, though I felt it had enough flaws that it didn’t really strike me as ‘award-winning’. Nevertheless, I am pleased to see it win — particularly because a small press book (in this case, one from PS Publishing) has won such a high-profile award (though I must admit, I don’t really follow awards, and this may happen more often than I think it does).

Anyway, the night belongs to Ian MacLeod, so congratulations to him and all concerned!

Låt den rätte komma in [Let the Right One In]

At long last, the much-acclaimed Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In has made it to my local cinema, so I went along to see if it lives up to the praise. It’s certainly different, which is a good start; but I am having trouble deciding what to make of it, the reasons for which will, I hope, become clear. I’m even uneasy about calling it a ‘vampire film’ because, although a vampire is central to the movie, the tone and affect of Let the Right One In are so far away from those we normally associate with vampire films that it almost feels as though it doesn’t belong in the same category. For similar reasons, I wouldn’t describe this as a ‘horror movie’ — yes, there is horror, gore, even some scares; but they don’t seem to me to be the film’s main purpose. Let the Right One In feels more like a drama than anything else.

We meet twelve-year-old Oskar, a weedy kid who lives with his mother in a miserable-looking tenement block. He is fascinated by murders, keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and a dagger under his mattress, and play-acts attacking people. The reason he does all these things is because he’s being bullied at school. But it seems Oskar may have found a friend, in the shape of Eli, a girl of (apparently) his own age who has just moved in next door. She urges the boy to stand up to the bullies — which he does, striking Conny, his chief antagonist, around the head with a stick, splitting open Conny’s ear. Naturally, Conny doesn’t take this lying down, and seeks revenge of his own, recruiting his older brother to do the job.

Whilst all this is going on, Oskar is falling in love with Eli. Unfortunately for him, she’s not really a girl, but a vampire, responsible for a number of brutal killings, committed by both herself (simply grabbing hold of people and gnawing away at their necks), and her adult assistant (who gasses his victims, hoists them up, then slits their throats). As the nature of those killings may suggest, there’s a strong sense of realism about the way vampirism is handled in the film, with relatively little in the way of anything overtly supernatural (making that all the more effective when it does come — witness what happens when Eli tries to enter somewhere without first being invited in). This is also part of the larger visual style of Let the Right One In, which is very distinctive, with stark compositions and a washed-out palette. There’s also some good use of scenery, with (for example) the claustrophobic appearance of Oskar’s apartment building contrasting with the wide open landscapes of the countryside, where his father lives; which mirrors the contrasting emotions Oskar feels when he stays with each of his parents.

So, Let the Right One In has an interesting and striking approach and style; but I feel it falls down a little when it comes to telling the story. For one thing, the film focuses so tightly on Oskar and Eli and their relationship that surrounding elements can feel somewhat ; disconnected; this adds to the film’s ambience, but I did have particular trouble with the aftermath of Oskar’s hitting Conny — we know that the school rang his parents, but then Oskar’s school life seems to carry on much as it did before, which didn’t ring true for me.

Actualy, I think Oskar in general is the movie’s weak link. Lena Laendersson is thoroughly convincing as such an old, powerful being in the guise of a slight twelve-year-old girl (though apparently her voice was overdubbed, which I couldn’t tell); but Kåre Hedebrant’s performance as Oskar seems a little too ‘one note’ — I didn’t gain much sense of Oskar changing over the course of the film, when that surely should have been the movie’s key transformation.

Still, Let the Right One In is worth seeing, because it is the experience of seeing the film — its atmosphere — that really impresses (such that I’ll even let the movie off its deus ex machina ending). But it’s best to go in without any preconceptions of what it will be like. I suspect this is a film that wull reward repeated viewings, once you have a better idea of what it’s probably aiming for. Given time, of course, I’ll be able to find that out for myself.

Clarke Award: Martin Martin’s on the Other Side by Mark Wernham (2008)

I’ve had to make a decision: what to do if I find one of the Clarke nominees unbearable. Do I carry on to the end (I have undertaken to read and blog about these books, after all) or not? I’ve decided not, as I got through 70 pages of Martin Martin’s on the Other Side, and really couldn’t face the other 230. If that invalidates the whole process, so be it — but I will explain myself.

I didn’t get far enough in to gain a full understanding of the plot, but this is what I can gather. Perhaps a hundred years hence, our ‘hero,’ Jensen Interceptor, is a consumer researcher for the government (such research now being an official undertaking, as the authorities issue personalised money-off vouchers). He’s is sent to interview a man named Reg, whose answers suggest he is not toeing the line sufficiently. This leads to Jensen being recruited as a spy to investigate Reg, whom, it transpires, is involved with a group called the Martin Martinists.

That’s about where I got up to, but I gather that Martin Martin was a TV psychic from the early 21st century, who (his cultists believe) really was psychic, and whose death (again, so they believe) derailed the progress of society. There’s some stuff about Martin Martin seeming to come back from the dead, or something like that (apologies for the vagueness, but I would have to have read further to be able to be more specific).

Why, then, did I feel the need to abandon this book? Could it be because of a narrative voice like this:

What you’re about to read is all tru. The incomplete truth is tru, innit? Geddit? Ha ha ha.

I’d quote more, but it’s annoying me already. Actually, it’s not because of this, not entirely; though Jensen’s voice is certainly difficult to tolerate (and I wasn’t overly keen either on Mark Wernham’s narrative voice in the prologue, which seems to rely too heavily on long lists of details). But the whole point is that we’re supposed to find Jensen and his world repugnant.

I think the real trouble is that the author doesn’t make it worthwhile persevering. Wernham labours some of his points into the ground through repetition, and I didn’t find his satire all that great. True, some is quite subtle (such as Jensen’s concern for his score on the entrance exams for his new job, rather than for how much he learns); but I found other ideas unconvincing — for example, people in this future are born with a ‘Life Debt’, and receive payments for that instead of a monthly salary. It’s an amusing idea, but I can’t see that it would ever work in practice, and that lessens its impact for me.

I hear there may be a kernel of a good book within Martin Martin’s on the Other Side, but I’m in no hurry to find out for myself.

Eastercon

I went along to Bradford for my first Eastercon (British National Science Fiction Convention) at the weekend — just for a couple of days, to see what it was like. I enjoyed myself, but not as much as I’d hoped to; I think that came down to feeling more like a ‘visitor’, so I’ve booked for the full weekend next year. This post will give some general impressions I had of the con.

First, there was a lot going on, much more than at Fantasycon or Alt-Fiction (the conventions I usually attend) — something like nine or ten different rooms in use (not all at the same time, but still), plus media programme, games room and art show. I was very impressed at the range of events on offer, which included film shows (in addition to the media room), music performances, talks on science and history, and even items that had nothing much to do with science fiction (oh, to have been there for the ‘science of chocolate’ session!).

I was surprised by the size of the venue. For all its many streams of programming, and its much larger number of delegates (I believe that Eastercon typically averages about 800-1000 attendees, compared to Fantasycon’s 200), the physical space of the convention could not have been much larger than that of Fantasycon (and I’m sure the social areas were smaller). The dealers’ room was also much smaller than I had expected. Having said all this, I don’t if it was typical of Eastercon, or whether it was just the size of that particular hotel.

As for the events I attended — I saw John Clute ‘in action’ on a panel for the first time (he was every bit as erudite as I thought he’d be). There was a talk on the Clarke Award shortlist, which I’m sure I would have got more out of if I’d read all the books. And quite an interesting panel on ‘old versus new SF’, in which the two ‘teams’ of participants recommended three books of ‘old’ or ‘new’ SF to each other. I hadn’t read any of the six books under discussion (More than Human, The Man in the High Castle, Stand on Zanzibar, Revelation Space, River of Gods, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union); but I found it striking that the ‘new’ books were all by reasonably well-established authors (respectively Alastair Reynolds, Ian McDonald, and Michael Chabon), and I wondered which ‘new’ writers the panel would have recommended. Alas, there was no time for such questions, and it’s a whole different discussion anyway.

Highlight of the two days: well, it has to be discovering one of my reviews quoted in publicity material, but that doesn’t have anything to do with Eastercon, so…

Best panel: not about SF, but a talk on urban exploring, and seeing fascinating photos of the old American Adventure theme park, and other abandoned buildings. It’s amazing what abandoned places are out there — though I’ll happily leave the exploration of them to others!

Most interesting fact: I never knew that Tiffany was a name that goes back hundreds of years. But, to paraphrase the contributor (I forget who it was), ‘Princess Tiffany’ would just not sound right in a serious fantasy novel nowadays.

Favourite coincidence: there was a depot opposite the hotel belonging to a company called ‘T H White’. I don’t think they were guarding Arthur, but you never know…

Anyway, that’s my little report on Eastercon LX, and I look forward to experiencing the full weekend next year.

Quoted!

After five years and 100+ pieces, I’ve reached a personal reviewing milestrone — one of my reviews has been quoted in a book from a mass-market publisher! The quote is inside the Virgin Books edition of Conrad Williams’ new novel, One, and is from my review of The Unblemished: “Williams’ threat emerges from the world like an optical illusion being revealed, then you find that society fell apart while you were looking somewhere else.” Unfortunately, this quote is not attributed to me by name (just to “SF Site” — but that can be the next milestone!

I’m particularly pleased to see this quote because I’ve often had the impression that my reviews don’t lend themselves easily to quotable soundbites (“A heart-stopping tour de force!” etc.) — and I think what the publishers have quoted bears this out. It’s not immediately apparent what it means, and the quote probably only makes full sense once you’ve read the book — yet it gets to the heart of how I think The Unblemished works.

Anyway, as you can imagine, I’m in a good mood.