FRINGE

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Issue 2 January 2001

Welcome again

Looks like for the second year in a row, the much publicised end of the world has yet again failed to materialise. Goddamn it, is it so much to ask? Don't they realise that this means I'll have to go back to work again! New Year's Day last year I had high hopes for a while, as I was convinced that there was an alien invasion underway (good enough reason to stay on holidays, I think), but my dreams were shattered when an inconsiderate friend informed me that in fact I was looking at a fish farm in Bantry Bay.

Christmas is one of my least favourite times of year, usually my family are all working on the Day itself, but last year my parents' retired and we were looking at the first real Christmas in recent memory. It would have been perfect, apart from the dose of the flu that meant I had no time to do any shopping (they were very understanding), my brother having to work on St Stephen's Day and staying down in Cork, and both wisdom teeth in my lower jaw deciding to make their presence known for a whole week, meaning that I couldn't open my mouth. I miserably slipped scrambled eggs between my teeth and drank plain yoghourt as I watched my parents put paid to what smelt like the most beautiful roast duck in the history of the world. And felt indescribably sorry for myself. I still do, in fact.

Anyway, what all this means really is that I hope everybody had a much better Christmas than my own, and since we all have to face a New Year, let's hope it will be a happy one.

What I've Been Reading

About ten years ago I was wandering through Waterstone's in Cork, browsing happily in the science fiction and fantasy section, when an interesting cover caught my eye. I bought the book without even reading the blurb, started reading it on the bus, almost missed my stop, got home and stayed in the same spot until I had it finished. The book was Voice of Our Shadow, and my love affair with Jonathan Carroll had begun. Carroll's books aren't easy to classify, and they aren't for everybody, but they might have been made for me. A mixture of contemporary fantasy and magic realism, with a distinct authorial voice that somehow doesn't grow stale or overused. There is a temptation to describe his books as beautiful, since the writing is clear and unadorned and the pace and tone generally relaxed, but in fact the stories are anything but beautiful, verging on harsh horror. The Land of Laughs was Carroll's first novel, and has recently been republished as part of the Fantasy Masterworks series - before this it was almost impossible to find a copy, and this was my first reading of it. It is typical Carroll - briefly, Thomas Abbey is a schoolteacher who wants to take a career break and try something different. A chance meeting with a woman in a second hand book shop leads to a new relationship and the idea to write a biography of the now-dead author Marshall France. He lived his entire working career in a small town called Galen, was permanently hostile to publicity, and his only daughter Anna seems determined to carry on the tradition. At least, that is what they find out before they arrive in Galen - Anna seems inexplicably friendly, and the townspeople are without exception delighted that the biography is going to be written. Then one of the town dogs starts to talk... There are some great touches in this book - Thomas' relationship with Saxony is poignantly drawn, the books and characters of Marshall France are described in just enough detail to make you want to read them yourself, but left vague enough that they don't swamp the action. The ending is one of Carroll's better ones, distinctly satisfying.I picked up an early Charles De Lint book, Mulengro, since I like his stuff as well - modern fairy tales for the most part, usually written with a good attention to detail that reminds me of Tim Powers' Expiration Date and Last Call. Mulengro, however, seems to have been written before he got into his stride as such. It is subtitled A Romany Tale, which should have warned me - I think that in Ireland we live closer to Travellers than in a lot of other places, and their romance is diluted. I'm trying to be diplomatic here. Anyway, back to the book. The narrative itself suffers from far too many words in Romany typed in italics, which I find distracting and also pretentious. The story is quite good, but he seems to lose control of it towards the end, plus there are some errors that set my teeth on edge - for instance, an aging hippy, into magic, is surprised to learn that using an object's true name (tm) gives you power over it - he obviously hasn't been reading the right books. But bitching aside - this is an okay book, and it passes the time.

Outside of SF, I read Ben Elton's Inconceivable. I'm not sure what to say about it. It isn't as harsh in its humour as most of his books, which I found disappointing, but it does a very good job of portraying (perhaps stereotypically) the different thought habits of men and women. It has been adapted into what by all accounts is a terrible film, Maybe Baby.

Also outside SF was The Code Book by Simon Singh. This is much better than the TV series that has been made out of it, which had been putting me off reading it in the first place. I liked the historical anecdotes best, although when it came to cracking Enigma they got a bit jingoistic. Bizarrely, since it transpired that in fact the Polish were the ones who came up with the method for cracking it, but ran out of money. But it is an interesting read, with puzzles at the back for nerds like me.

NeverEnder's Shadow

How does Orson Scott Card get away with it? No seriously, how do they let him do this? And more to the point, why do I keep wasting my money and time on buying and reading them? My excuse for finishing the thing is that I was in bed with the flu and therefore not in my right mind. Also, some bits of it were so excruciatingly bad they were funny. This is the story of Bean, the very small and feisty lieutenant that Ender recruited for his army in Ender's Game. He is even smaller than Ender, even younger when recruited to battleschool, even smarter than Ender, has even higher test scores. But the problem is, he isn't Ender. I found him one of the least sympathetic characters I have read about recently, and to tell you the truth, at some times I was rooting for the nasty little runt to be squashed. A big problem with the book, I believe, is that it mirrors far too closely the events of Ender's Game - Bean is put through the same tests and situations, and for the most part handles them the same. Also, and I must put this delicately, I get the feeling that OSC isn't that smart himself, which is a problem when it comes to writing about exceptionally intelligent characters. Bean demonstrates his higher intelligence in some way, and you are left with the impression that he is averagely bright amongst a bunch of morons. As for the really bad bits, I'll sum them up to avoid you having to read it yourself. At the age of fifteen months, Bean crawls out of his crib, manhandles the lid of the toilet cistern up, and hides inside it. This had me rushing with my tape measure to discover the dimensions of my toilet cisterns, chuckling gleefully as I pictured the situation. Another great bit was when one of the characters tried to get around OSC's eventual realisation that "Buggers" mightn't suggest insect-type creatures to all of the English speaking population - apparently "Formics" is now the accepted term, but since "I. F. Common is not English" we can still get away by calling them Buggers. Actually, that section is one of the worst pieces of professional writing I've ever seen (and I've read some appalling horror books), I cannot believe an editor let it through. Ugh. The book left a bad taste in my mouth. Steer clear.

Films

No contribution from the Great White Northern Film Guru this month, as I've been away from my email over the holidays.

I went to see Titus before Christmas. This is a long film. Over two and a half hours, and since I've the attention span of a goldfish on a bad day I found it difficult to get through. It is also very harsh. But it is beautifully done. The setting has fantastical elements to it, a mixture of Ancient Rome and Nazi Germany, and some of the imagery is amazing. The rape of Lavinia is thankfully left off camera, but her abandonment, handless and tongueless on a tree stump in a swamp is one of the most moving scenes I've seen on film recently. Anthony Hopkins gives his usual outstanding performance, from disbelief and dismay when his troubles start, to a poignant good humour tinged with madness when he realises that Aaron has tricked him into cutting off his own hand. The final set piece, where (and this is so cool I have to give it away) Titus kills the sons of the Queen, bakes them in a pie, and serves them to their mother and her husband the Emperor, is wonderfully done. Titus is dressed as a comic chef, the pie itself looks revolting, the audience is laughing despite itself, and shocked at laughing. Apparently this production came from a hugely successful stage version, and it shows. The opening scene, with Titus returning victorious from the wars with the Visigoths, the closing scene with the bodies littered about, the hunting scenes - they all have a feel of the stage to them, which to me (given my theatre bias) add to the sense of tragedy and the effectiveness of the film. I'm not sure would I watch it again - the length of the film and the subject matter make it difficult, as I mentioned above, but I would recommend it.

And now for something completely different. On video, I watched The Princess Bride again. Is this the greatest fantasy film ever made or what? In my opinion, it is. I love it. My parents had never heard of it before, so we watched as a family, and I tried not to speak my favourite lines with the characters. I had almost forgotten how enjoyable it is, all the bright colours and larger than life characters - true fairy tale stuff.

I also watched about half of Event Horizon, which I was really enjoying (except for the odd part when I had to hide behind a cushion), until my flatmate's boyfriend arrived in, saw what I was watching, and fled the room screaming. From then on, the film began to seem much more terrifying, especially to watch alone. I've always been pathetically useless at anything even remotely scary - I have to watch the X-Files in company and with a book handy to start reading when the drama gets too much, and as a child Scooby-Doo was far beyond me. It was a bit of a problem for my tomboy image, as I had to pretend to the lads that I had watched it all, and The Incredible Hulk, and since my brother was one of the lads and witness to whether I was actually present at the TV when these shows were on - well, I had some bizarre abilities involving closed eyes and endless trips to make cups of tea for us.

Bits and Pieces

I got The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy as a Christmas present and have been flicking through it and wondering how come I got by before without it. I've already bought one book that I read about in it, (The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino). It's fascinating stuff - I look up favourite authors, find that they deal with themes I wasn't even aware of, look up the themes, and get further reading recommendations. And I really was never aware of all the different types of fantasy tropes and themes that exist! For instance, your standard epic fantasy as a coming of age tale, with the Ugly Duckling protagonist, his or her group of companions who can be Seven Samurai or a Dirty Dozen, the Edifice they might have to explore - makes it all seem a lot deeper than I thought on first reading. Great stuff, and now along with my copy of The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, I can seem much more knowledgeable and informed. You can never have enough reference books, is my motto.

For those who are not aware, the Dublin SF monthly pub meetings have been revitalised, with a new venue (upstairs in Bowes pub on Fleet Street), from about eight o'clock every first Tuesday of the month. December saw the traditional Christmas party, with hundreds of mince pies consumed, an excellent raffle, and good fun and chat. This month is a Table Quiz, for those who think they know everything - I expect to lose. Next month is a Post-Apocalypse evening, which I'm really looking forward to. There'll be a talk about the changing nature of Apocalypse's in SF over the years, how to survive when it happens. Apparently the best place to be in Ireland is West Cork. Having spent too much of my life in a small West Cork village, and spending a good deal of that time trying to get away from it, I'll be taking my chances staying right here.

I saw Unbreakable (reviewed last issue) last week, and it is still haunting me. Go see this film, it is quite something. One bit really pissed me off however: Egyptian hieroglyphics are a written language, not drawings of events as implied by Samuel L. Jackson. Get it right or don't mention it. But it was a minor point, and I'll try and get over it.

Finally, I'd like to thank everyone who has given feedback from the first issue of FRINGE. I hope that this issue sees some of that feedback taken on board, and I'm glad that people like what I'm doing.

Copyright Fionna O'Sullivan, 2000.
Contact fionna@theculture.org
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