16Jun Reviews for June 2017

Let's start with books. I've read a few since the last review post. The one that stands out the most is Lloyd Arthur Eshbach's Over My Shoulder, a recollection of a few decades worth of science fiction publishing. I won't cover it here as it's a valuable resource and I intend on devoting a full post to it later. Rebecca Rego Barry's Rare Books Uncovered is a thoroughly digestible book. The book presents forty or so reminisces from dealers, collectors and others in the trade, regarding rare, unusual and valuable finds. Each entry only takes a few minutes and I've been dipping into it for months. Not all are exciting, but that's the joy of the field, but all are interesting.

The final related non-fiction is Edward Brooke-Hitching's The Phantom Atlas. Edward's father collected atlases and maps, so I am told by my colleagues at Maggs, and Edward has evidently picked up a little of the magic. The book outlines a few dozen lost islands, imaginary peninsulas and fabled sightings. The lines between myth, fantasy and confused surveying are often blurred in this book which just adds to the overall enjoyment. A love of geography as a child, I think, brought me to speculative fiction and this book reads like a celebration of the foundations of the genre. I doubt that is how it was intended, but I certainly pulled that thread from it. We have books on mythology, on monsters, on the stories behind the fairy tales, but there are few that gather together so many real stories of seafaring that border on the mythical. A wonderful book and highly recommended, and not just for the excellent summaries of the histories, but also for the plethora of contemporary maps and illustrations. One of my highlights of Olympia book fair recently was finding a map with the island of Taprobana.

For fiction, I revisited Robin Hobb's Six Duchies with the outstanding Assassin's Apprentice. Inspired partly by having met up with her recently, and partly by my brother asking for another trilogy to read, I thought it about time to re-read. I rarely re-read, simply because there's so much I haven't read, but I'm perfect for it as my retention is so poor that it always reads as new. I approached the book with trepidation as I worried that it might be a little juvenile (I read it first aged 22). My worries were entirely without cause though; the book is still wonderful. Fitz's self-pity wore me down a little, but it was easily countered by Burrich's stoicism. The plot unfolds nicely, and I don't think there are many in the genre who cast a character as well as Hobb. Royal Assassin is well under way.

I find nowadays that if I'm not enjoying a book I'll put it down regardless of how far through I am. I did this with Richard Bachman's (Stephen King) Road Work. It was an audio book and I had about an hour left on the book when the journey ended. I never picked it up when I got home; the ending wasn't craving my attention. Similarly, I never got to the end of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. Snow Crash is one of those books I've been saving. I approach lists of 'best SF' or '101 great novels' as part of a life-plan; I don't want to read them all too soon. Snow Crash was like that until I realised it was the only book on a particular list I hadn't read, so thought it a good time. The book's well-written and creates stunning tableaux, it's a rich world with a believable history. It's a little dated, but so is most cyberpunk. Sadly, it just seemed a little too wrapped up in this world it was creating. The image never really emerged from the palette. A classic, I'm sure, but all groundwork and no tower.

Other honourable mentions: Stephen Kinzer's The True Flag, not particularly interesting but it turns out Roosevelt was a bit of a dick and A Science Fiction Omnibus edited by Brian Aldiss's - Greg Bear's Blood Music being the standout story.

On to music. I discovered a new artist recently named Nausika. As far as I can tell it's a British duo, with a fresh sounding take on electronic music. Almost a minimalist approach in many ways, but carrying a strong rhythm and sliding basslines beneath. Very pleased to hear Cyantific revisit the classic Outatime, with part two, one of the greatest pieces of drum and bass this year. The 1991 remix of My Nu Leng's Soul Shake gives the track a new set of wings. But by far and away my favourite of late has to be T-Base's Discover Yourself. A driving rhythm, gentle pads and a soft, modulated bassline. No vocals as such, but the occasional vocal stab that's such a signature of drum and bass. 

Hans Zimmer's score for Interstellar's been looping round for a good while too. Zimmer's scores have underpinned so many films of late, and it's nice to see that he's still trying new things. When Nolan put together Interstellar it was clear that it was to be his 2001, a challenge to compete with Kubrick for Nolan, but for Zimmer, he had to compete with Strauss and Ligeti. Whether Zimmer accomplished that really requires a full generation for it to sink in, but I'd posit that he stands a good chance. Cornfield Chase is a remarkable track, Coward, I remember from the cinema, as it took the levels so far as to start clipping - it was almost too loud. Zimmer is certainly the master of the modern film score.

Well, this is taking longer than I'd expected. Television has brought us the outstanding Les Revenants, aired over two seasons, but both vital to the plot. A stunning work and an innovative take on the resurrection trope. Flawlessly acted (though, being in French, it can be difficult to pick out a poor actor). Loose ends were tied up, and thankfully no opening left for the studios to money-grab an extra season. But, enough ambiguity remained to keep you thinking. 11.22.63 was another memorable series, I think perhaps because, much like Les Revenants, it was filmed to completion from the offset. There's nothing worse than cheapening the ending of a season because it's been renewed for an additional one. Eight episodes surrounding an alternate history of the JFK assassination. James Franco stars and is believable, if a little dense at times, Daniel Webber and George MacKay play their parts excellently, and Sarah Gadon holds the whole thing together. The final episode is one of the finest in recent memory.

And finally games (films have been mostly poor of late). Just last night, I finished The Last of Us, a post-apocalyptic zombie adventure. Written like that it comes across as a little frivolous, but I fear that's the stigma of speculative fiction. The reality is that Naughty Dog have crafted a survival story into a game. The cut scenes hold the story, and the action scenes carry it. It's the first time I've ever felt that gaming could be the thing to topple film from second place in the story telling game (books are obviously first). The cinematics were on a par with Hollywood, the score carried far more emotional weight than most albums, and the illustration was simply stunning. This is a work of art. Other than that, I've been playing Insurgency a first-person war shooter. Not so much art, but bloody tense!

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