Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Woken Furies

Title: Woken Furies
Author: Richard Morgan
Publisher: Gollancz

Maybe there's something both sad and inevitable in the way the idealism of youth gives way to the practicality and compromise of middle age, and so on down that slippery moral slope to the conservatism of our golden years. When the hippy generation rose to power we got not peace and love but two Gulf wars and a housing bubble. 

Woken Furies, the third in Richard Morgan's cyberpunk series featuring taciturn badass anti-hero Takeshi Kovacs, is Kovacs in middle age, the burning fervor of Altered Carbon tempered through the fires of Broken Angels, now reduced to nostalgic bitterness and disillusionment.

It's a far more meandering book than the first two in the series, a blurry, unfocused plot in dire need of bifocals, as former government super-soldier Kovacs returns to his birthplace of Harlan's World on the path of revenge, then becomes a fugitive among robot-hunting mercenaries, then rounds up a group of ageing revolutionaries in order to stage a rescue, then has to do it all over again. Spoilers!

The writing in the sense of painting-pretty-pictures-with-words is still top class though, and Kovacs' return to the Japanese-influenced Harlan's World allows Morgan to slip in some dry jokes among the place names: Tekitomura ("Random town"), Tadaimako ("Welcome back") Harbour, Muko ("Over there") Prospect.

It's the tone and theme, however, that have come the furthest since Altered Carbon.

While Kovacs remains his monosyllabic, irresistible-to-women self (tangent: did Morgan have it in his contract that Kovacs would have full-on triple-X sex with two separate women in each novel? Because it works out exactly--two technicolor sex scenes with two individuals. Every. Damn. Book.) but instead of the eat-the-rich anger of Altered Carbon, he's now cynical about political causes, noting that revolutionaries care as little about the individual as the repressive governments they plan to overthrow.

During his time among the mercenaries, Kovacs meets Oshima, a woman who may have downloaded into her own brain a copy of the consciousness of Quellcrist Falconer, a near-legendary rebel leader and kind of moral lodestone for Kovacs throughout the series. Only now, faced with the possibility of meeting his idol, Kovacs is disinterested, wanting only to restore Oshima's personality and individuality. The other ex-revolutionaries, on the other hand, have very different priorities.

It's not just politics that's grown up, though. Kovacs' return to his homeworld brings him into contact with many of his old associates from his youth, and from his time as an "Envoy" (a sort of intergalactic space commando), and he learns the hard way that the way he remembers things are not the way others do, that our happy peaks are sometimes our friends' lowest troughs, that our friends grow apart from us and we discover there really wasn't that much keeping us together in the first place, save for the convenience of proximity and time.

He even--bigger spoilers--comes face to face with a younger version of himself, and hates what he sees.

To the extent that living on this funny old world of ours has imparted me with any wisdom whatsoever, these realizations ring true, though I'm not sure what anyone could do with this knowledge--if you're young, you probably don't believe it, and if you're not (like me) well, then it's already too late, innit?

Those themes can be a little hard to see as you're wading through yet another rat-at-at action sequence or a squishy sex scene, but once you put the book down for a bit and let it sit, these things come into focus and leave you with an appropriately somber, reflective mood for the end of the trilogy.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Lemmiest of Movies: Annihilation

Title: Annihilation
Directed by: Alex Garland
Screenplay by: Alex Garland

This is another one of those times when I'm oddly relieved I don't live in America, as this tremendously simplifies the streaming service landscape: everything's on Netflix. Star Trek? Netflix. The Expanse? Netflix. Quirky movies that the studio apparently has no faith in? Netflix.

Annihilation is extremely loosely based on the very Lemmy book I reviewed earlier, and according to my extensive, in-depth, exhaustive research on the film's Wikipedia page, one of the financiers felt it was too nerdy and a deal was struck with Netflix for international distribution. And there was much rejoicing. Their loss is my gain.

Although it shares the same title as the book, this is very much its own thing. Director Alex Garland (Director/Screenwriter of Ex Machina and Screenwriter on Dredd, Never Let Me Go and Sunshine) takes the basic premise--five women scientists go into a weirdo paranormal zone of alien origin called Area X, located on the Florida coast and centered about a lighthouse--and uses it to tell what is essentially a completely different story.

Instead of existential dread and man's disconnect from nature, we get body horror and fear of mortality. Largely, these changes are all to the good, turning the aimless navel-gazing of the book into something as honed and pointed as an alligator's tooth or bear's claw. It's only let down at the end, when the last 15-20 minutes or so go full on 2001-ish psychedelic lights and  exploding jellyfish that it kind of loses its footing and goes from OMG to WTF.

The actresses almost all underact their asses off here, angling for existential disassociation that honestly, makes them a bit bland to watch, especially leads Natalie Portman (Luke and Leia's mom) and Jennifer Jason Leigh. There are some zippy scenes between Portman and her husband, played by Oscar Isaacs (Poe Dameron), but once we get in to Area X everyone goes into stunned fish look. About the only one who leaves much of an impression is Goina Rodriguez, as unhinged paramedic Anya.

It's not a movie to watch for the performances, really, but for the atmosphere. Taken together, the movie is not so much scary as unsettling. There's a lot of strangeness going on as the alien zone warps and twists the life of everything inside it, including our five intrepid heroines, as deer grow flowers on their antlers, flowers grow in human shapes, sand is transformed into crystal trees and people's intestines get up and go walkies.

In the limited field of direct-to-Netflix movies, it beats the pants off of Mute, at any rate. It's unique, it's got its own style, a couple of things it wants to show you, and isn't too hung up on action and spectacle. If this is the future of moviegoing, I for one am fully on board.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Dubble Deighton

In keeping with my recent fad for aerial adventure, here's two more that have been on my reading list:

Title: Bomber
Author: Len Deighton
Publisher: HarperCollins

Absolutely blown away by this book, ranks right up there with some of the great military fiction, like James Jones's Thin Red Line, Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot, Catch 22, Slaughterhouse Five or Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn.

Bomber follows a single RAF night bombing raid over Germany from a number of perspectives: Lancaster bomber pilot Sam Lambert, German night fighter pilot Victor Lowenherz, radar station commander August Bach, and the inhabitants of the fictitious town of Altgarten.

The build-up to the raid is excruciatingly tense and slow-paced, as the participants go through their little pre-flight rituals, squabble or brown-nose with comrades and commanders, or make unrealistic plans for their futures. I'll admit the first third of the book can be a bit frustrating, as you're introduced to yet another set of characters who stumble into the story, wishing they'd DAMN WELL GET ON WITH IT. Which is the beauty of this section I suppose: that's precisely what all the bomber crews would be thinking.

The only part that still doesn't work for me in this part is the constant reminders and descriptions of the weather patterns and cloud formations. If this is intended to be ominous, it doesn't quite work, leaving me a little bit lost amid all the stratocumulous and cirrus nimbus.

The bombing raid itself, by contrast, is absolutely riveting.

Once the bombers take off, pretty much everything goes straight to hell more or less immediately. Planes ram into flocks of birds and crash. Pathfinders are shot down or mark the wrong targets. Fire hoses run out of water. Rescuers are killed by unexploded bombs.

The two contrasting themes are the mechanization of war and the extent to which soldiers and airmen become mere tools on the one hand, and the all-too-human jealousy, infighting and office politics that plagues everything that happens outside of the combat zone.

There's a wealth of technical detail here, but it's to Deighton's credit that this never (apart from the cloud formations) overwhelms the story. The sometimes arch observations on the nature of war, particularly from Lancaster pilot Lambert--the eagerness of the young to destroy, the speed with which war reduces them to automata, the ultimate futility of bravery in a war where individual contribution counts for nothing--really hit home hard by the end of the book.

Title: Fighter
Author: Len Deighton
Publisher: William Collins

Despite the parallel titles and identical author, Fighter is nothing like Bomber in the least.

Instead of a fictional account of a single action, this is a historical overview of the complete Battle of Britain in 1940, when Hitler and Goering's Luftwaffe tried to smash the RAF. Or did they? One of Deighton's major points throughout the book is that the Germans were extremely vague on what they were trying to accomplish--destroy the RAF, provide cover for a seaborne invasion or destroy Britain's capacity to resist one?

As with Bomber though, Deighton seems to take real pleasure in describing the technical aspects of war, the operation of radar and the Luftwaffe's guidance systems, the aerodynamic properties and characteristics of the Bf109 and Spitfire, pilot training schedules and aircraft production statistics. Some of this is fascinating--such as the fighter plane design and how it impacted both armament and flight performance (and therefore tactics). The Luftwaffe guidance systems, on the other hand, I just found a bit of a chore to read through, and still don't really understand.

As you might expect, there's a corresponding paucity of first-hand accounts. A couple of British pilots describe encounters, but that's about it. So frustratingly, there isn't much of a sense of what it was actually like for the people actually fighting this battle.

In the end, I'm a little perplexed by this book. It goes into such detail on the fighters and the tactics employed (especially on the German side--e.g. have fighters fly high above the bombers or down with them?) but even at the end of the book, I'm still not quite sure why they didn't wipe the floor with the RAF, other than due to lack of interest. The weather turned bad and Hitler, never especially interested in conquering Britain, turned towards Russia.

A bit depressing to realize that after all those deaths, one side just couldn't be bothered any more, but that does rather dovetail nicely with the message of Bomber.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Flying off the pages

Recently I've been interested in books about combat flying, including the two reviewed below. Very different books, but each enjoyable in their own way.

Title: Lords of the Sky
Author: Dan Hampton
Publisher: William Morrow

This first one tries to be comprehensive, covering the whole history of air combat from World War 1 right up to the author's own experiences as an F-16 pilot in the First Gulf War.

Chapter layout is pretty standardized: First you get a fictionalized 'account' of some encounter during the period. Then Dan explains the situation on the ground--who invaded who, and why the former was usually the Germans--followed by a very detailed account of pilot training programs, perhaps a few details of one or two notable pilots or aircraft, then more explanation of what was going on a few thousand meters below their feet.

The fictionalized accounts are the best parts of the book, excitingly written if of dubious historicity, while the rest of the chapters tend to explain a lot more about the wars in general than about the actual specifics of air combat in each era. As a result each chapter feels as padded as a flight suit, an impression reinforced by the extensive appendices, glossary of terms and excerpt from another of Dan's works, as if there was a page count to meet and he couldn't fill it. Dan also frequently falls victim to the desire to editorialize and spout fairly cookie-cutter hoohah opinions on all things military.

Could have been about a quarter of the length without losing any detail on actual air combat.

Title: Carrier Pilot
Author: Norman Hanson
Publisher: Silvertail Books

In contrast to the above book, this is one man's memoir rather than an attempt at a historical overview. The man in question, Norman Hanson, signed up with the RAF, was sent to the USA for training, then posted to Egypt and finally to HMS Illustrious, operating in the Pacific Ocean against the Imperial Japanese.

If none of those engagements strikes you as terribly central to the course of World War 2, it should come as no surprise that Mr Hanson didn't actually see all that much action, and the bulk of the book is instead occupied by tales of drinking and singing in various bits of the USA and the Empire, punctuated by about three instances where he actually fired his guns in anger.

These rear-area shenanigans quickly get repetitive, whose boredom is only broken by the author's Boy's Own magazine writing style, about things going "like the clappers" and things being a jolly good show eh what? It's perhaps not the author's fault, but he does rather sound like he just stepped out of a Monty Python "Upper Class Twit" sketch.

The most impressive part of the account of actual battle is the absolute, terrible and utter slaughter the Allies were able to inflict upon their own pilots. Primarily, this seems to have been because the fighter Hanson flew, the F4U Corsair, was a bit of a death trap for new pilots or when attempting to land on a carrier.

At one point, for example, Hanson states the carrier air wing lost 41 aircraft, only 16 of them in combat. The other 25 were from ditchings or crash landings. Indeed, the only two times the author's life seem in genuine danger are when he's forced to ditch to avoid hitting another plane, and when a friendly destroyer accidentally fires on them in an attempt to get at the "Japs."

Ordinarily, this might be a cause for sober reflection, but Hanson is far too psychotically British stiff upper lip for that, and any sadness over the repeated and grisly demise of his closest companions is done away with by a stiff drink and a sentimental tune on the piano.

Jolly good show.