Feisty Redhead In Negative Gravity Escapade!

Issue 3 February 2001

Be Happy

I'm not religious by nature, but I'm tempted to offer up a prayer none-the-less of thanks that January is finally over. Is it just me, or did that month last much longer than any decent month has any right to do? It feels like years since the relatively happy, toothache-filled days of 2000, yet I find only a measly (rainy, cold, damp and depressing) month has passed. Not that February rates much higher on my personal scale of months of the year, mind you, harbouring as it does that monument to bad taste, mulchy sentimentality and stark commercialism that is St Valentine's Day. I cannot believe that people actually fall for this rubbish every year - is it just me who finds the idea of the Catholic Church having patron saint of lovers ludicrous? Colour me cynical (with baby blue polka dots, please), but the whole thing just reeks. When single, That Day has been depressing, when in a relationship it has been forgettable. Which is just as it should be - true romance, if such a thing exists, must be spontaneous to mean anything, and cards and flowers delivered because they are expected is almost insulting.

Congratulations to those who have spotted that I am in a rare foul mood. I was going to use this introduction to try and think of all the good things that will now be happening because January is no more, but unfortunately inspiration has died. Even treating myself to a day off work and a shopping trip have failed to raise my spirits. The only think I can do at this stage is to ask you to cheer up, it could be worse, you could be down here in a dark blue funk like me.


After a long time and lots of persuasion from David Brin fans, I launched myself into the Uplift books. I had bought Sundiver ages ago, started it, and found the writing too bad to stick through with it. A definite first novel. But having heard that the next two were stand-alone books, only loosely linked with Sundiver I decided to give them a tentative try. I'll peer suspiciously at anything once, is my motto. Being perverse, I started with book three, The Uplift War. Two words: Space, and Opera. Which is okay, since I like space opera as a rule. And this is space opera on the grand scale. There are some lovely touches about the whole universe that Brin has imagined. During the events described in The Uplift War, Earth is under siege from a host of alien craft, but since this only indirectly influences what is happening on Garth, the planet the novel is set on, it is only mentioned briefly. It gives the impression of a huge stage that we can only see one small part of. Similarly, the events of Startide Rising are hinted at and mentioned, but no details are given. Another good touch is the subtle differences shown between humans (who seem to be self-uplifted to sentience) and other galactic races who have been mentored by patron races. Humans, without the resources of the Galactic Library to consult for the answers to all questions, have come up with the concept of metaphor, unknown elsewhere. Also, since they have not served a 10,000 year indenture to a patron race, are much more laid back in their approach to their clients.

Anyway, the writing itself is pretty good, the characters are appealing and sympathetic, and the aliens are for the most part realistically different from humanity without being caricatures. I even had no objections to sentient-chimpanzees, and usually I loathe any hint of animals behaving like humans. However, on the downside, after an extremely enjoyable plot, with plenty of action, the odd bit of romance, an occasional space battle, the ending went splat. Okay, it was a neat ending for the various plot twists and so on, but - vomit. I won't spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it, but for those who have: the hand-holding. Was it really necessary that it be so cute?

That aside, I had been avoiding Brin for ages because I had completely ungrounded beliefs that he wrote hard science. I was delighted to find that he doesn't. All in all? Even despite the ending, I enjoyed it a lot, and I will be peering suspiciously at the other books in the series.

What I've Been Reading

For the most part of the month I took a bit of a break from SF altogether, charging through several thrillers, including two Ian Rankin's which were as brilliant as ever. But John Rebus, the police officer the books revolve around, is depressing after a while, so I'll be avoiding them for a while. Just as well, since I think I've read all of them at this stage. I also read another couple of Margaret Atwood books, Alias Grace, about a famous and enigmatic murderess in 19th Century Toronto, and The Robber Bride, a study of three women and their reactions to the reappearance in their lives of a man-eater from the past. As always, Atwood writes brilliant prose, and there are another four of her books on my in-pile.

On the SF front, I tried out a new author called Janine Ellen Young and her second novel, The Bridge. A deeply alien race has contacted humanity, through the only manner they know how - by passing genetic information in viral form through space, specially designed to adapt to the organisms it inhabits. Earth's population is decimated by the resulting illness, which leaves some mysteriously untouched, whilst others live through the illness, and emerge with strange visions and a desperate need to build the eponymous bridge to reach the aliens. I raved throughout the first two thirds of this novel, sure that I had found another great female author to foist on my friends, but towards then end it all began to fall apart. My old foe romance began to rear its head. Even leaving aside my bias against romance per se, when we have followed two characters from childhood, and they are the only two characters we have followed from childhood, does it have to be spelt out for us? Can't they happily find other partners? Apparently not. And this is taking place in some dire Mills and Boon style prose. For instance: "she had a face like a child seeing its first star". Hopefully this a habit that Young will grow out of in time, because leaving it aside, this is a pretty imaginative and good science fiction novel, with an almost fresh take on First Contact. I'll be keeping an eye on what else she does.To get completely immersed in the science side of SF, I went for Ian Watson's The Embedding, recently re-released in the hideous yellow Gollancz SF Collector's series. Chris Sole is a language specialist involved in some secret research, with a lab of children who have known no other environment than that provided for them, and no other language than the involuted, embedded speech patterns that Cole and his colleagues have invented for them. To understand the embedding concept behind the entire novel, and example is given: "This is the farmer sowing his corn, that kept the cock that cried in the morn, that wakened the priest all shaven and shorn" and so on, except that true embedded speech would take the recursive phrases and string them all together, so the end might go: "that wakened that cried that sowed his corn". Or something. One of the limitations of the book is that the mind-bending concepts that are being worked on are exactly that - mind-bending. In a separate plot thread, an old associate of Sole's, Pierre, is studying some Amazonian Indians who seem to have found a drug that gives the same embedded effects as those Sole is seeking, but with a price of madness followed by painful death. I won't go into the aliens plot thread, which seemed tacked on to give structure to the novel, and a way of reuniting the two other strands. It's a first novel, and it is interesting, but I don't think my poor brain could take a rereading.

On the fantasy side, I read Italo Calvino's The Castle of Crossed Destinies, where travellers arriving in a castle find that they have lost the power of speech and have only the use of a Tarot deck to tell their tales. A host of literary archetypes throng amongst the stories thus told, from Childe Rolande to Hamlet, but in the end the book suffers from the limitations placed on it by the plot device - hearing about the same cards over and over just gets ... dull.


The Great White Northern Film Guru is back! A quick piece on some of her favourite films...

Blade Runner. I think it is still the best movie ever made. One of those magical films when just about every single person involved with it did some of the best work of their careers. And it is so dense and rich in detail, I still get something new out of it every time I see it, and I've seen it many many times. The new DVD version will allegedly be as perfect as they can make it, perhaps then those who have never seen a good print of it in a good theatre will be able to fully appreciate it. Most especially the sound work, there's all kinds of foreshadowing and added detail buried low in the audio that's barely audible on just about every print I've seen of it (both the Director's Cut and the original theatrical release) in the last few years, and that includes the woeful quality DVD which is currently available.

Insomnia. A stark, subtle, intellectual Norwegian film noir that is on the very surface a police procedural. Not for those who require explosions for enjoyment. Beautifully filmed and acted. Just brilliant. The Criterion DVD looks and sounds excellent, with easily read subtitles.

Three Days of the Condor. A 1975 Sydney Pollack film about a man (Robert Redford) who works for a CIA agency as a book reader, only to return from lunch one day and find everyone in his office murdered. It has moments where it feels dated, but it remains one of the best thrillers ever. Until the DVD was released I'd only ever seen it in pan and scan on television. Seen in wide screen, with an excellent transfer for a film of this age, it's beautiful.

The Conversation. Writer/director Francis Ford Coppola could only get a studio to back his making this film after The Godfather was such a huge success. Gene Hackman threw his considerable pull behind it as well, for a chance to take a role so different from the ones he had been playing up until then. Hackman plays a reclusive surveillance expert hired by the president of a large corporation, who records a conversation between a young couple. The conversation haunts and disturbs him to the point where he becomes involved with their situation. Hackman's low-key work in this film may be his best. He is so convincing he makes us question our own perceptions (perception being a key player in the film). The currently available DVD is wonderful, a clean sharp print and a wonderful soundtrack - sound is a character in its own right in this film, and the videotape's audio track did not do it justice.

Bits and Pieces

Rendezvous With Rama (about the only Arthur C Clarke book I like) is being made into a film again. Details and suspicious PowerPoint presentations can be found at Apparently not only will there be computer graphics and generated scenes, but "most importantly" there will be live actors. Which is a shame, imagine the fun Rama would have with dead actors. I canvassed some fans for reactions: "Er. Arthur C Clarke. I don't think so" , "Slide 12 looks dodgy. So does slide 15", and "Huh?" So much for journalism.

Further film rumblings, apparently Stanley Kubrick's last project AI has been passed to (wait for it) Steven Spielberg, who has already cast a kid in a yet to be defined role, and also (the bit that makes my skin crawl) got Robin Williams to agree to be the narrator. Don't let me put you off what might be a moving and fulfilling cinema experience, but - I'm running in the opposite direction.

As predicted, I spectacularly and loudly came last in last month's table quiz in the SF Club. This is because the questions were unfair, obviously. Disappointingly, our team wasn't given a wooden spoon prize, although I did manage to pick up a Mr T. mug in the raffle. But no need to be envious! Something tells me that said mug might just make it's way back to a raffle some time in the near future...

My flatmate's boyfriend was thrilled by his mention in last month's FRINGE (running screaming from Event Horizon on video), but feels that the wrong impression of him might have been given. To straighten matters out, I agreed to mention him again in a different light. Whilst visiting my flatmate's parents in the depths of Clare over Christmas, he was asked whether they had the Wren Boys over there in Maynooth. He denied it, then seeing that more was expected, added "Although some fella was caught with a rocket launcher in his attic once". There was a respectful silence as all considered the implications. Generations from now I can see the legends surrounding the Kildare Wren Boys: "The wren, the wren, the king of the birds, diddly-eye diddly-dum, GIVE US YOUR MONEY OR ELSE!"

Good enough place to finish, I suppose...

Copyright Fionna O'Sullivan, 2000.
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