I grew up in Hong Kong in the 1970s. It was a glorious time and place for a young lad. Skyscrapers, jungles, beaches, and all the latest gadgets. Also, as you can tell from Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies (the old ones), everyone was Kung Fu fighting all the time and had brilliant haircuts. In fact, when I was sent to Britain in the 80s I managed to convince my fellow classmates that in Hong Kong we learnt Kung Fu instead of gym or PE. I was believed for a few months until I got into a fight with an older kid and got my ass kicked. Happy days…
Up until 1978, I thought all Western TV shows and movies were pretty lame. Star Wars changed that a lot, then soon after there was Battlestar Galactica on TV. Until these came along though I was obsessed with cool Oriental fighting stuff. One of these was Battle of the Planets (G Force) – a cartoon set in the future where some orphan kids in weird outfits fought huge metal creatures and armies controlled by what seems to be an evil hermaphrodite. Awesome! My favorite show though was Kamen Rider V3. (It had to be the V3 one.) A guy dressed as a sort of bug man who kicked the crap out of various odd rubbery monsters. It was really gory at times. Here’s the trailer:
Pretty cool huh? ‘But why this utterly self centred post about what you watched as a kid?’ I hear you ask. Obviously it will be fascinating for future historians to get a glimpse of the formation of one of the greatest minds of the 21st century, but there is another reason. I have to warn you it is still self obsessed though.
I’m basically establishing character. I was a kid who loved kung fu, gadgets, motorbikes and weird outfits. One of my earliest memories, when I was a mere 7 year old bowl-cutted nipper, was being at the Star Ferry in Hong Kong just after school. A man in a yellow jumpsuit suddenly pulled up on a cool motorbike. He looked like an action hero. I remember being shouted at by a film crew but I wouldn’t go away and they were only able to get a couple of takes as there was a lot of traffic. I never knew what film it was and went on my happy way with my eager young brain filled with action stories and yellow jumpsuits.
I had forgotten about this until a few nights ago when I watchedBruce Lee’s ‘Game of Death’. Imagine my surprise when I saw his character pull up to the Star Ferry in a yellow jumpsuit on the back of a motorbike. Imagine my further surprise when an annoying 7 year old Western kid with a 70s bowl cut wanders up to the bike. The memories flooded back and I felt nostalgic. Hence this post. I apologise but when all is said and done, it’s my website.
I should also point out that most of the movie was filmed after Brucie had died. That’s why there are so many long shots like this one. This scene was filmed in 1978, five years after his death. So the guy in the suit was either zombie Bruce or a double (he had a few for scenes after he died). Obviously a zombie would be ridiculous as they can’t ride motorbikes.
Here is the clip. Skip to about 4:53 and maximize. What a cute kid!
This book is a gem. It was written over 50 years ago but deals with topics still relevant today.
The story is about a star-class copysmith Mitch Courteney who works for Schocken Associates, one of the two main advertising agencies in the world. This is a pretty elite position to be in as the world, including governments, is ruled by advertising. It’s capitalism gone maaaaad! To be a good citizen you have to be a good consumer, which is actually pretty easy for most I would imagine. The baddies are known as ‘Consies’ who are essentially environmentalists.
When Mitch gets the job of trying to make Venus sound like an attractive place to be he suddenly finds himself up against both the Consies and an evil rival ad agency. He then starts to learn all about the world.
I loved this book. Sure some of the writing feels a tiny bit dated but it is chock-full of good ideas and characters. There’s even a womanising, heavy drinking, dwarf astronaut. Mitch Courteney himself is a pretty unrepentant bastard when we first meet him but he slowly changes when people start to do him over and the reality of how others live dawns on him.
I would highly recommend this. It’s a cracking read set at a furious pace. Buy it now! It’s a classic.
The story follows a group of drug users in California in the far-off year of 1994. Actually, the date doesn’t really matter, the book is barely science fiction. The futuristic setting (for when it was written) is simply a device to allow for a drug that doesn’t exist and new techniques for undercover cops.
Anyway, the main protagonist is a druggie called Bob Arctor who is actually an undercover narcotics agent called Agent Fred. Arctor, like his friends, takes a drug called ‘Substance D’ (or Substance Death) and he slowly finds himself addicted. Substance D causes the two hemispheres of the to ‘disconnect’ leading initially to confusion and disorientation and ultimately to brain damage. A bit like Jaegermeister.
All narcotics officers keep their identities secret from everyone, including the police, so when Agent Fred goes to where he can view the surveillance footage of his/Arctor’s and his mates’ house he has to wear a mask (that flashes hundreds of different faces across it every minute, which is cool). As Arctor gets more involved in the drug world he becomes addicted to Substance D. His brain hemispheres lose connection and he grows ever more paranoid and confused. As his brain splits – so do his two personalities. Agent Fred starts to grow more and more convinced that Arctor is a major player in the drug world. He starts to investigate himself…
Philip K Dick is one of my all-time favourite authors and A Scanner Darkly is one of my all-time favourite books. The book is primarily about drug addiction and self-identity. Philip K Dick took an unbelievable amount of drugs in his time and also lost a lot of friends to addiction. He knows what he is talking about. There are some very humorous and very authentic stoner conversations. There is a guy who is convinced he is covered in bugs and they are starting to spread. One guy tries to kill himself by overdosing but it goes wrong and he descends into a trip where a multiple-eyed being from another dimension reads him his sins for all eternity – after 11,000 years the being finally reaches where he discovers masturbation.
Dick’s books generally deal with the themes of what is real, what makes us human, identity and perception. He’s one of the finest examples of the science fiction genre that I like. I have a friend that refuses to read science fiction that was written after 1980 as he claims that older sci fi was more about ideas and philosophy. Dick is one of his favorite authors as well.
A Scanner Darkly is funny, thought-provoking and ultimately, sad. It is one of the few books I have read where I actually sat for a few moments after finishing thinking wow. Just writing this review makes me want to read it again. Don’t see the film and be done (I haven’t actually seen it) – give this a go.
This is a classic science fiction book. It is such a classic that I had assumed I had already read it. I think I got confused with other books featuring Dyson Spheres. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The book starts with a cool 200 year old Oriental guy called Louis Wu bar hopping his way west around the planet. He uses teleportation devices like those in Star Trek that instantly beam him 100s of miles in a millisecond. His ‘cool credentials’ are established when we learn that he is doing this to extend his birthday celebrations and as midnight approaches he travels a few hundred miles west to get another few hours drinking time.
His bar/city crawl is interrupted when he is diverted and recruited by an alien called Nessus who is a Pierson’s Puppeteer. These creatures are highly advanced cowards who have two heads but one brain (just read it). Louis is shown photos of a structure that looks like a giant ring around a distant star and is hired to join Nessus in investigating it. They also recruit a violent, giant cat-like creature called ‘Speaker-to-animals’ – a name that is more of a description of its job as ambassador to human-kind than an actual name, and an uber-hot woman called Teela Brown who has been bred to be lucky.
This might all sound a bit far out – and it is. It is also kind of believable and is full of ‘hard science’. The principle four characters are well drawn out and believable and the story progresses at an enjoyable pace.
It is Niven’s sheer inventiveness and creativity that shines throughout the novel. It had me thinking “fuck, this book is awesome!” from about page two onwards. (Studying a literature degree allows me to have such powerful analytical insights like this). Along with all this wonder and science and adventure, there is a great deal of humour. The initial ship they travel in is called the ‘Long Shot’ and the craft they ultimately crash into Ringworld is called ‘The Lying Bastard’.
The Pierson’s Puppeteers are great inventions too. As a race they are incredibly powerful and advanced. They are also massive cowards. They don’t trust spacecraft and instead place several planets in exact equidistant orbits around a star and move the whole lot. The only ones who travel and mix with humans are officially labelled ‘insane’. Although it is perfectly possible to travel faster than light they choose not to due to the very slight risks involved, so they have begun their exodus from our region of space 20,000 years before they have to. Wu at one point comments that it would be typical of humans to ignore the danger of the exploding galactic centre until the last minute and then there would be a mad scramble for safety. They discover later in the book that one of the reasons why the Puppeteers are so nice to humans and kzin is that when they reach the end of their epic sub-light journey, these more reckless races would already be there having recklessly travelled faster than light.
Anyway, I won’t go into too many of the ideas as there are a lot of them and I would ruin it for you. I’ll include some of the stuff in it though, just to wet your appetite.
Ringworld is superb. I usually prefer pre-1980s Sci Fi as it tends to be more idea and philosophy based. The ringworld is a very cool and very huge idea. The possibilities for it are almost endless. It is covered in animal and plant life from all over the galaxy. At one point they encounter some mirror-leafed plants that can primitively detect movement and focus the sun’s rays to bring down prey that decomposes and nourishes them. The heroes meet a girl from another advanced race that has crashed there, who is half bald but so skilled at sex she puts all human women to shame. Some of the locals have reverted to primitives and there are even heroes wandering the lost cities with bloody great swords battling monsters.
Ringworld has won a shitload of awards and deservedly so. Apparently there is a film being discussed but this has been the case for a few decades now. I wish they would hurry up with it, it might get a few more people to read the book.
Don’t be put off by the fact that this book is a ‘Russian classic’, it is truly worth a read. Plus, it isn’t a thousand pages of depression like some others I could mention.
The book, not surprisingly given the title, is concerned with the generation gap. But it is also concerned with Russian society at that time, embracing the modern world, disillusionment, the power of emotion, family dynamics, and change both individual and national. The book was written just after the emancipation of the serfs and is set just before this major event.
The story follows two recently graduated students called Yevgeny Bazarov and his friend Arkady Kirsanov as they travel around meeting various characters. Bazarov and Kirsanov are both ‘nihilists’ and while their beliefs are pretty tame by todays standards, their desire for change, dislike of the ‘system’, and rejection of emotion and embrace of science was revolutionary and shocking in its day. Mind you, so was a woman showing her knees – so it’s all relative.
The characters they visit are almost archetypes of the various strata and political viewpoints of society at the time. It is through the interaction and contrasts with these various characters on their journey that the story is told. The society at the time was undergoing a massive upheaval and the fathers are struggling to adapt to these changes that are represented by their children. The younger generation transform too, as their nihilistic rejection of emotion is broken down by experience and love.
The novel is a true classic and is a strong contender for the first true Russian novel. It has influenced so many writers that you really should give it a try.
Ok, unless you are into this kind of literature you might be bored by the description above. So I should also mention that it includes mysterious but hot Russian widows, hippy chicks, disease, intrigue and even a duel with pistols.
Fathers and Sons can be read in a day. In my opinion, it would be a day well spent.
I would feel remiss if I let the death of one of my favourite authors pass by without comment. JG Ballard died of cancer aged 78 on the 19th of April. It is sad to think he will never release another book.
He was usually labelled a Sci Fi writer but he frequently strayed from this label to write unique, often dystopian, scenarios that sort of/kind of/might just happen. Tired of trying to label his writing techniques and topics, he is actually in the dictionary (some of them) as ‘Ballardian’ so you can just use that. Ballard described his work as ‘speculative fiction’.
I might write full reviews later but just in case you haven’t read any of his work, I will provide a brief synopsis of some of my favourites:
Concrete Island (1974) tells the story of Richard Maitland in a twisted modern version of Robinson Crusoe. The protagonist crashes his car into an island formed by the junction of three major motorways and gets stranded. Due to his leg being knackered he can’t cross the road and his attempts at flagging down speeding cars proves futile. So he’s stuck. He then struggles to survive and even discovers that he is not alone. As always, a great novel with a brilliant idea, but I found Maitland a hard guy to like all that much. Not that it really matters.
Buy Concrete Island here
Empire of the Sun (1984) is probably his most famous book. This is mostly due to the fact that it was filmed by Spielberg. It is almost autobiographical in that it tells the story of a boy called Jim Graham (JG stands for James Graham) who grows up in Singapore and is interned in a camp by the Japanese when they take over in World War II. This all happened to Ballard except that in real life he was with his parents. He undoubtably used a certain amount of artistic licence but his experiences were genuine. The book is debatably his finest, and most award-worthy. I say ‘debatably’ as lots would disagree. The characters are well defined and believable with a strong narrative. Which isn’t always the case with Ballard. Highly recommended. Don’t just see the film. Buy Empire of the Sun here
High Rise (1975) is possibly my favourite idea of all his work. It tells the story of a luxury self-contained high rise apartment block that comes complete with its own swimming pools and supermarkets. There is no real need to leave if the residents don’t want to. This book returns to his favourite dystopian theme and the ideas of how modern life and psyche can be affected by the artificial surroundings we have created for ourselves. The apartment block has rich penthouse owners at the top, middle-class luxury apartments in the middle, and cheaper smaller flats for the working class at the bottom. A class war effectively breaks out as the block looks inwards and the residents return to a primal state. There are raids on different floors and battles for control of the pool. A very effective, if slightly extreme, study of humanity and what we can be capable of. Buy High-rise here
Millenium People (2003). I read this a few months ago and enjoyed it immensely. It tells the tale of a middle-class revolution in the UK. Barrsiters, art gallery owners, and media types get fed up with their lot in society and say bollocks to it all. It centres around the revolution ring-leaders in a gated community in Chelsea. While the book is witty and very readable it becomes hard to identify with many of the well defined characters. Not one of his best, Millenium People is fun – especially if you happen to be middle-class, live in London and frequent some of the novel’s locales such as Tate Modern, the NFT, and the South Bank generally. I would recommend this only once you have enjoyed some of his other works. Buy Millenium People here
The Drowned World (1962) is Ballard’s second book and a difficult one to summarize. It is set in a world were the ice caps have melted, the temperatures are rising and London is transformed into a strange, overgrown, lush tropical dreamworld. While most people have migrated north, a few feel drawn to the primeval landscape. These characters also start to regress to a more primitive state. Like High Rise and Concrete Island and others – it is a typical Ballardian exploration of a dystopian society and the way our surroundings affect our mental states. It has hardly any narrative or story but is more a a dreamlike summation of the mood of the fetid swamplike landscape and its affects on the characters. A great novel but not for everyone. Buy The Drowned World here
I intend to read all of Ballard’s books over the coming months but the above should at least give you a taste of his work and why he is so hard to categorise. I would highly recommend his short story collection Vermillion Sands as well but I haven’t read it in ages so can’t summarise it here.
If you haven’t read any Ballard at all you are in for a treat and should try some. If you have – then I’ll just shut up. He was a great writer and one of the wittiest men to see doing a reading or an interview. Along with two of my other favourite authors dying in the last couple of years – Kurt Vonnegut and George MacDonald Fraser – Ballard’s death is a loss to us all.
After 20 years of waiting, Watchmen is finally here. I first read Alan Moore’s brilliant comic in the early 90s and again a couple of months ago. It is a truly superb and multi-layered masterpiece about a group of fucked up masked heroes and vigilantes. It postulates numerous questions: What is the true nature of humanity? (We’re not very nice.) What sort of person is likely to become a masked hero and are they all a bit mental? (They’re all a bit mental.) Given that humanity isn’t very nice, how do you bring about world peace? (I’m not telling.) Why do female crime-fighters have to wear such sexy and revealing little outfits? (They just do, alright? Deal with it.) There are lots more and I’ll admit I’m being a bit flippant – it really is worth reading.
The film is set in the alternate history of 1985 where, due to the intervention of the masked heroes – in particular the god-like Dr Manhattan – America won the Vietnam war and the Cold War is still ongoing. Nixon is still in power for his third term (the rules were changed) and the second generation of masked vigilantes have been outlawed. Only a couple remain active.
The film begins with an awesome bit of violence as a masked superhero called the Comedian is beaten shitless and thrown to his death out of a window. This is followed by an opening credit sequence that is truly a wondrous thing to behold and is even enjoyed by people who hated the film. It is the best opening sequence since the remake of Dawn of the Dead – also directed by Zack Snyder. The man’s a genius at starting a movie. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars (a new hope) and Barbarella (basically Jane Fonda stripping in zero G) have great openers but not quite as good as this. I’m not including porn here.
The story then follows a sociopath called Rorschach – who has a cool moving Rorschach print covering his face – as he unearths a conspiracy that is getting rid of all the remaining masked heroes. At the same time the world’s Doomsday clock is at five to midnight, tensions mount in the ongoing cold war, and ‘Tricky Dicky’ Nixon is on the verge of pressing the big red button. The tensions increase still further when Dr Manhattan gets pissed off with journalists and mankind generally and buggers off to Mars. Dr Manhattan is the only hero to have superpowers and can do pretty much anything. He could whip Superman while working, having sex, and making his dinner – you’ll have to watch it to know what I mean. This causes him to slowly lose touch with his own humanity and all those around him – leaving him increasingly isolated, condescending and patronising as the movie progresses. When he talks to people he comes across as a mix of Yoda and Gandalf but without the charm. He also insists on being naked for most of the film so you are subjected to enormous blue glowing genitalia for large chunks of the film. This is cunningly balanced by the lovely Silk Spectre getting naked so it’s ok, there’s something for everyone.
So that’s the plot. Well some of it. There’s a lot of plot as it was a long comic novel.
When the film came out there was a tedious predictability about the divisions it would cause. Some hard-core fans of the graphic novel disliked it because too much was changed. I should hesitantly point out that they are idiots and are wrong. Short of actually going frame by frame in line with the comic (like Sin City), Snyder could not have done a better job of bringing it to the screen. If he had copied the comic too closely the only people who would have enjoyed it would have been the hard-core fans and Manhattan’s schlong would have been wasted on the almost all-male crowd as they sat there for the 10-hours trying to find fault.
The details were there (even down to moles on faces) and the sets and events and critical conversations were included. Conversely, a large chunk of the criticism was that it too slavishly copied it’s source material. Critics boringly banged on about Snyder’s loyalty to every detail of the comic and that it proved detrimental to the movie. There was no way he could please both groups of people but fortunately Snyder managed to please the vast majority of people in the middle camp. The ‘norms’.
There are two big changes however that partially substantiate this dislike. One is the deletion of a ‘comic within the comic’ – a tale of piracy and survival and bloated corpses and murder. Which really is a great as it sounds. There is going to be an extended version of the film which includes this comic as an animated insert. It is also now available on DVD. So people can stop blubbing about that. The other big change is the ending. A fairly substantial thing to alter. The graphic novel had a fairly bleak and dark ending which was just superb. I love films that end like this, and this possibly explains my devotion to zombies but I digress. The film keeps this ending but just uses slightly different means. Given the current climate in the real world, I think the ending was actually better in the movie. So there.
Will you like this film? It depends what you want from it. If you are a devoted fan of the comic and love every aspect of it and worship Alan Moore (like myself but just more so), then the ending might piss you off too much. If you are looking for something up there with Dark Knight, this is close but not quite there. It is brilliant but it is flawed. Until now, the comic has been deemed unfilmable. Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofski have both tried – the fact that they tried though, should say something about the material. The great and godlike Alan Moore said it was written as a comic and would not translate well to the screen. I can see why, as the pacing, layering and characterisation works differently but it still does work. He probably still just has the hump about what happened to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and who can blame him?
It might help you decide by looking at who liked the film and who didn’t. Nearly all the top critics I respect – Roger Ebert, Jonathan Ross, Time Out, the Guardian and Empire thought it was brilliant. On the other hand, the critics for the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, and the Independent hated it. This pleased me immensely as I don’t want to agree with the Mail on anything. (The brilliant Charlie Brooker once described the Mail as an idiots guide to life released in easy-to-read daily chunks.) The latter group were so obviously going to hate it I’m be surprised they even bothered going. Personally, I fucking loved it. For the record – so did my better half and she hadn’t read the comic. I have read complaints that it is hard to follow if you don’t know the source material but am pleased to say that a lot of my friends hadn’t read the comic and followed it just fine. The film is an astounding spectacle, has some superb action sequences, great characterisation and plot, and the cast of relative unknowns are outstanding. If you are looking for a ‘Crank’ level of action you will be disappointed although the action that is on offer is brilliant. The characters are fleshed out nicely and the complexity of the human condition is examined to a satisfying level. In particular, Rorschach and the Comedian – neither very nice people – come across vividly and you understand where they are coming from. Just like the graphic novel. No mean feat for two people who are essentially psychopaths.
Snyder was given a task that was never going to please everyone. It was a guarantee from the outset that some groups were going to be alienated. If he had just made a movie that was loosely based on the comic I’m sure some elements could have been improved. But that would have been disappointing to anyone who had even a passing like for the comic and we could have ended up with another Batman 4 or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. No one wants that. Snyder did his best to please as many of the camps as possible while remaining loyal to the graphic novel and I could not have been happier or more impressed with the result.
(Note: this is my first review and the ones that follow won’t be as long. I am used to having an editor and you can now see why.)