Six sentence reviews: Fallen Dragon

Fallen Dragon Peter Hamilton

I bought this in an airport when I had run out of plane reading and knew that Peter Hamilton is pretty reliable for that kind of reading – hence the cover damage. It was an entertaining read, though I thought the first half was a bit slow in parts and probably would have benefitted from being rather tightened up. Like much of the Hamilton oeuvre, Dragon has a long build up to the relatively quick pay off, so it is fortunate that much of that build up contains interesting ideas. Again, as with the other Hamilton I have read, the exploration of the power and role of corporations and economics in setting limits on things like space travel and exploration are very interesting and, as with the Commonwealth setting books, it is corporations who wield all the power.  Characterisation is a little superficial at times and I think there were aspects of Lawrence’s character in particular which weren’t well articulated. Overall, excellent for reading on planes, especially in the second half, with interesting ideas, but ultimately not a book I would ever read a second time.

Monthly cultural round up: June

This month, we’ll dive right into it.

Books

The Evolutionary Void Peter Hamilton This is the third book of a trilogy which I had been enjoying a lot, so it was with much excitement that I started it. Sadly, I don’t think it lived up to the other two. Perhaps it was that the Edeard parts which were so engaging in the previous two books, didn’t have quite the same magic. Or perhaps it was that the denouement lacked a bit of punch, with a number of major characters with very little to do. The massive imperative previously for some characters to do certain things (trying to avoid spoilers here) just sort of trickled away. Still enjoyable and still fun, but sadly not quite the finale for which I was hoping.

Peter Duck Arthur Ransome This is the first of the “adventure” Swallows and Amazon books with the children adventuring over the seas with Captain Flint and (as we know from Swallowdale) the imagined Peter Duck. Like the books which remain closer to home, Peter Duck is an engaging adventure with sly humour. Those adult of us reading may question the likelihood that a cyclone and earthquake would hit the island on the same night, but the small people readers are completely enthralled by it. Once again, easy-to-read, engaging fun which holds up well even 80 years after it was written.

Television

Game of Thrones season 1 (second half) So, last month I did complain that a few of the early episodes of Game of Thrones were a little slow. In the second half of the season we get the pay off. The politics come together, characters come to the fore and the episodes are gripping and exciting. Things you are convinced won’t happen do, and you stay glued to the screen through all of it. It is interesting how characters who seemed more stereotyped early in the season seem to break their shackles somewhat and how the story does not always go where you expect it to. Of course, questions remain like are there too many boobs? but over all, I think that the Game of Thrones  manages the balance and makes itself something that we are all now waiting for expectantly – next season is going to be a thriller. Must resist the temptation to read the books…  Other useful links include this illustrated guide to houses and relationships and the Buddy Comedy take on the first season.

Rome season 1 There were some interesting things about Rome and it was enjoyable, but it was not outstanding television. I think it suffered from too few central characters, which made much of the action seem somewhat contrived – the final explanation of why Caesar managed to get himself killed in the Senate (apologies if that is a spoiler anyone) was so contorted and contrived as to provoke one to say “yeah, right.” I also didn’t like the fact that the two central female characters were both quite so unpleasant and it was very hard to sympathise with either of them. I did enjoy the character of Octavian though – some very clever moments there – and also Marc Antony was rather entertaining. I also thought the depiction of the relationship between Caesar and his slave which rather well done. Nonetheless, while I don’t believe that we should fetishise accuracy in historical drama, some of the compressing of events did make it feel like Caesar was in power for a very short time. Over all though, I did enjoy it enough to contemplate watching series 2.

Art

The Art of the Brick Nathan Sawaya

On at Federation Square in Melbourne, this exhibition demonstrated what all good art should do – very strong technical skills but also imagination and inspiration. I think I was less impressed by some of the nonetheless highly impressive exhibits, like the large-sized Parthenon where the technical skill was mostly demonstrated, and more impressed by the ones like Mask which demonstrated a strong use of the medium to convey different ideas and emotions. A further up-side of the exhibition – it is something which small people will enjoy. It was also beautifully curated, with the white and black backgrounds allowing the colours of the Lego to shine. Well worth seeing, it goes beyond the nostalgia for those Lego Exhibitions I looked forward to every year as a child.

Cultural Round Up: March

For the observers of culture, here is today’s link – but you have to like the Bronte sisters…. With thanks to the always entertaining Jen_Bennett.

So March involved the flying to the US and back, which will give you a clue as to why there are museum/art reviews from New York. Due to the excess of plane movie watching, they shall be entitled to a separate post, and I’ll stick with the fundamentals here.

Books

Redemption Ark Alastair Reynolds I do love Alastair Reynolds. After first reading him only a year ago, I have become a firm convert. Proselytizer even. Redemption Ark does not disappoint. it introduces new fantastic women characters to the series and captures the dilemmas and challenges of doing the right thing, but not always in the right way. It is interesting how this book is explores means-versus-ends arguments, and captures the intricacies of people politics on both a large and small scale. These books aren’t always easy, but this series is well worth the effort.

The Temporal Void Peter Hamilton As above, this is the second book of a trilogy. Perfect plane reading – unlike Reynolds this is easy, enjoyable reading where the main challenge is trying to keep track of all the characters. I still find the story within the story the most entertaining part of this book, and I must say the last couple of chapters do pack a fairly significant emotional punch.  It also quite interesting in some of the morally ambiguous territory it wandered into, and the dilemmas the characters faced.  The fact that, having just finished, I am very keen to go out and get the next one, even if it is still in Big Size edition, is testament to how page turning this was.

Art

Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures Museum of Modern Art

This exhibition was primarily of the 4ish minute screen tests which Warhol did of friends and acquaintances. These were curated brilliantly, surrounding you on the walls, giant silent black and white faces which were still or engaged in some minor activity. There was the unmoving intensity of Susan Sontag and the slightly crazy glint in Dennis Hopper’s eye. The exhibition also showed Kiss and Sleep (which I did not watch in its entirety), as well as the descriptively named Blow Job, which again featured only a face – but it was still clear that it was aptly named. I think the screen tests worked well to capture a sense of the personalities of those being filmed, as well as being beautiful to look at. If intense.

Quilts: Masterworks from the American Folk Museum

This is a seriously awesome exhibition, leading me to think many thoughts about craft and the place of women’s art and craftsmanship. The quilts were incredibly impressive, demonstrating enormous levels of skill and artistry.  It is interesting how we have boxed “craft” and, in viewing it as a women’s domain, have reduced its status in comparison to other areas of art. The detail in the quilts was impressive and the collection that was presented was excellent as it demonstrated a wide variety of styles and fabrics. If by some miracle I got to go to New York again after May, I would definitely be heading to the Museum to see the second half of the exhibition.

 


Monthly Cultural Round Up: June

Well, scary to think that we are already half way through the year. With that banal thought out of the way, onto the culture…

Books

The Dreaming Void Peter Hamilton This was interesting. Like the Peter Hamilton I have read before, this was pretty disposable entertainment. Very readable, quite compelling with some interesting characters and ideas. I do wonder why he bothered to make this Commonwealth and use old characters because it is nonetheless a completely different world, but perhaps this will become clear as the trilogy progresses. And as for that, it is in no way a stand alone book – it kind of just ends, not terribly elegantly, and if you want to get any sort of closure you will have to commit to the other two I imagine. It does suffer some of the problems of the big selling, quick to market books, with a bit of poor editing in places. And at the moment I think it has just a couple too many characters who havenn’t really gone anywhere interesting, However, despite all the disposable-ness of the book, I have caught myself thinking about the Makkathran (the void and the dreams) parts of the book from time to time. So I will definitely be progressing onto the next part of the trilogy…

Film

Iron Man I finally got around to watching Iron Man – the original version, not the sequel. I thought it was quite interesting – not quite as fabulous as I had expected from all the hype, but not bad either. Obviously Robert Downey Jr was playing a role that he could do in his sleep, and I am not quite sure what the point of Gwyneth was. I’m glad that things didn’t get romantic between them because there was zero chemistry. Overall the film was an interesting take on the super hero genre – particularly the whole foreign-war-fighting part – the usual trope of the super hero genre tends to involve urban villains who commit crimes – or who are super bad guys. So the idea of coming and preventing war atrocities in tiny Afghan villages is quite a fascinating one. I think I would have liked more of that. It was inevitable that there is a sequel though; the film felt almost entirely like a prelude to something and that further films are needed to actually see him in action. It is a challenge of the super hero genre really – superheros come from the perpetually continuing comic format, where an origin story can stretch out for a long time. So when films try to deal with superheroes, trying to get the balance right between origin story and ongoing action is always something of a challenge. But that is why sequels, and prequels, were invented. Anyway, over all quite enjoyable, even if there were a couple of really dire lines “nothing elese matters but the next mission.” Really, please.

Television

Doctor Who So I think I may commit blasphemy and say that you know, I think that I like Matt Smith as much as David Tennant, possibly even more. There is something so sweet about him, while still being very Doctor-esque. I think he is rather like Peter Davison as a Doctor. And, as was said on Sunday night, that seemed like a really fast season – which says something about the fact that it was such an enjoyable season, which was really well paced and didn’t drag. Some of the episodes weren’t stellar, but the weren’t dragging. And they did contribute to the over arching arc of the season. Anyway, I am definitely a Matt Smith fan, I like where they are taking River Song, and I thought the fact that we got Amy both as a child and a grown up added to the attraction of her, Of course, the attractiveness added to the attraction of her, even when she was a bit of a passenger in a couple of episodes, so that didn’t hurt either. I am also reasonably pleased with the way they have hopefully dealt with the whole companion-love thing – by making it really explicit, then making a choice, then getting on with it. And River adds to that dynamic. Anyway, now it is just annoying that we probably won’t have any more until Christmas…

Music

The Man in Black So, Tex Perkins does make a terrific Johnny Cash. And the show was well constructed and performed and the backing band was good and real, if you like either Tex Perkins, or Johnny Cash, or, even better, both, I definitely recommend it. The very entertaining thing about the show was the eclecticness of the audience, as there were clearly people who fit into all three of the different categories above. And certainly one where the parent-adult child thing was quite common. So really, just do it!

Thunderbirds are go…ne

There are two distinct streams in science fiction, the technologically focused and the socially and politically focused. That is not to say that there is a simple dichotomy – most science fiction covers off both elements to one extent or another, however there is a tendency for much science fiction to sit more distinctly in one category or the other.

Thunderbirds, made in the mid 1960s, ventured into the future some distance (apparently there are fan disputes about the actual distance into the future, though I note the DVDs say 2065). Interestingly, while technology had certainly moved on from the perspective of 1965, the social had not changed a lot. Following are some key reasons why the non-technological remained firmly mired in the past.

1) No change in gender positions: In some ways, Thunderbirds fights a rear-guard action for traditional gender roles in the face of 1960s questioning. Rather than seeing that these trends may have led to change by 2065, it appears that women are still secondary to men. All the Thunderbird pilots are men – now OK, this might be just because Jeff Tracey had only sons, but you know what I mean. The three women who are featured regularly are Lady Penelope, Tin-Tin and Grandma. Now sure, Lady Penelope is a jet-setting super spy, but as her cover she is a model, she launches ships, and she is a judge of prize dogs. While she doesn’t mind packing a pistol, she nonetheless drives a pink Rolls Royce, uses a compact as her communication device and screams at the sight of mice. OK, so she sounds like a Bond girl (except perhaps for the mice bit – that is more Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, worst heroine ever) – and perhaps she was an early model of one, but that certainly doesn’t indicate any change in gender relations. Tin-Tin is educated, as Jeff Tracey has paid for to have the finest of educations. She puts this to use by working for International Rescue – sometimes as an assistant to Brains in his scientific experiments, and memorably, she does form part of  the crew of Thunderbird 3 when it is sent to rescue (all male) astronauts in Sun Probe. However, there is some protesting over this. And on more than one occasion, Tin-Tin heads off to the kitchen when some crisis occurs. The less said about Grandma, the better. Over all, Tin-Tin and Lady Penelope’s meagre entree into the business end of International Rescue is advanced feminism compared to the rest of the planet. Every pilot, explorer and business person encountered is male. Woman haven’t even made it past bad driving jokes, as it is a woman’s poor driving which causes the accident which sparks the inferno in City of Fire.

2) No change in class divisions: The Tracey’s have Kirano their (Asian) house-man – father of Tin-Tin whose education Jeff Tracey, the paternalistic millionaire, has funded a la Sabrina. Society is not egalitarian – “Lady” Penelope still lives in a big house and has a chauffeur, the wonderful Parker, and English aristocracy is alive and well. An entire episode is dedicated to the fate of the Duchess, who is facing genteel poverty due to her gambling habits. Rich industrialists are all about the place, and the poor don’t rate much of a mention, except when coming for tours of Lady Penelope’s place.

3) No change in racial lines: As noted above, Kirano, the servant to the Tracey’s is Asian. So is their arch enemy, who, by some bizarre coincidence, is Kirano’s brother. The anti-Asian approach is reinforced by the use of  Asian-ish mysticism is some of the enemy’s activities. There are no black characters anywhere evident in either Britain or the US and when events occur in more exotic locales, it is still white characters who are engaged. The indication is that at the elite levels of business, the armed forces and government, those in control are all still white. The civil rights agenda and increased immigration in the UK during the 1960s have not created pause for thought that 100 years into the future, things might be different.

4) No geo-political change: This area isn’t quite as clear as others, however it is very evident that there is still a US government and a British government and there is nothing to indicate any major differences in the way the world is governed. The area of the Cold War and possible geo-political upheaval seem to be an absence, but there has certainly not been a nuclear war, despite the fears of the early 1960s in this area.

5) Fashions are the same: The boys sit around in their best skivvies smoking cigarettes – Lady Penelope’s fashions are solidly 1960s era, most of the furniture is still the same as always. Apparently every century the same set of fashions comes around.

Overall, there is a failure in imagination of the future beyond the technology it may entail. Space travel to the sun might be possible, giant walkers may be used by the US army to traverse the jungle, but the world still otherwise dwells in the same era as always. I think this makes Thunderbirds possibly the most technologically and least socially driven science fiction ever, but I could be wrong. I note that Peter Hamilton’s two books Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained (which I enjoyed a lot) envisage a future which is just like now + – more wealth concentrated in oligarchies – and that most of the imagination is concentrated in the technology. I don’t necessarily think this is a fault, but for someone who grew up on Ursula Le Guin, it certainly is a limitation.