I don’t go to see plays. Which is kinda odd, given both my interest in other dramatic arts, such as film, and that back in my school days, I was a devoted member of the drama club, both writing and acting (the former was, truth be told, rather too informed by a devotion to the works of Douglas Adams, but since hardly anyone else was, I largely got away with it). However, that ended when I went to college, my storytelling and performing skills were used for D&D instead. In the 30-plus years since then, the number of plays (rather than musicals) I’ve attended can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. But Chris got us tickets to see this for my birthday, not least because it was a touring production by the National Theatre of Scotland which was coming through Phoenix. Certainly, it was an intriguing premise, and had a nice gimmick – but would that translate into actual entertainment, or would I be reduced to surreptitiously checking my phone every 10 minutes?
I watched a lot of films last year. The final tally was 371 – I’ve no intention of even attempting to match that goal in 2016, and to make sure I’m not even tempted, January was largely spent falling behind, through a carefully staged process of slacking off and watching TV series instead. Despite that volume, I think fewer qualify for this article, mostly due to age. Without a Phoenix FearCon this year (we still took submissions, but stockpiled them for the 2016 fest), I was certainly not up on contemporary indie horror, which provided the backbone of last year’s list. Did actually go to the cinema more often, though this was simply a reflection of more “big” films being out which felt that they justified the expense and the effort [both of which continue to weigh heavily in our decision].
Here’s the top 10. As usual, I have a fairly loose definition of “this year”, so if some of these actually appeared somewhere in 2014, I don’t care.
“Even a glance at the whole record will show, first, that person for person, American freethinkers and agnostics and atheists come out best.”
As anyone who knows me can attest, I am far from religious. The only times I have been in a church have been either for touristic reasons or some pre-scheduled event, such as a wedding (my own or someone else’s). I am no fan of religion, particularly the kind that causes its adherents to look down the noses at those of other beliefs or outside the faith, and especially when believers try to inflict their code on others. That said, I don’t have a particular problem with religion either. You want to believe in God (or god)? Go ahead. I’d rather judge people on actions, not ideas. If you do charitable works because the flying spaghetti monster told you, that’s certainly a lot better than not doing them at all. What you do counts. Why? Not so much.
“I do not dream, der Grimnebulin. I am a calculating machine that has calculated how to think. I do not dream. I have no neuroses, no hidden depths. My consciousness is a growing function of my processing power, not the baroque thing that sprouts from your mind, with its hidden rooms in attics and cellars.”
Almost bailed on this one quite early. I had qualms going in based on my presearch – that’s research before reading. Basically, I had several books by the author, and wanted to find out which one was his first book, but also discovered the author stood for some fringe left-wing group in the 2001 General Election. Oh-oh: set “political soapbox threat level” to orange. Then, it opened with a prologue off densely obscure descriptive passages, followed by a first chapter that ends with a kinda graphic description of a sexual encounter between the hero and his insectoid lover. [Well, it’s perhaps not THAT graphic, but the concept is easily far enough out there, to be disturbing]. If I’d realized at the time that the book was 867 pages long, I might have skipped it too. Fortunately, the Kindle does not care for such things: all books look the same, regardless of their length.
I say, “fortunately,” since even though this took about six months to get through, read almost entirely on my 15-minute break at work, it’s a wonderfully inventive piece. Even my political fears were largely unfounded: while depicting what could be described as a police state, this is a minor aspect, and actually seems a fairly high-functioning regime. It’s set in the world of Bas-Rag, and in particular the city of New Crobuzon, where a multitude of races more or less co-exist. As well as the insectoid Khepri, you have the avian Garuda, the Cactacae (take a guess), the aquatic Vodyanoi, and so on. Science and magic are both in play, converging in a kind of occult steampunk known as “crisis energy”, which the hero Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin researches in his shared warehouse.
He is commissioned by a Garuda, Yagharek, who has lost his wings, and wants Isaac to provide an artificial alternative. Following a fairly complex set of incidents, doing so unleashes a plague on the city, in the form of a pack of slake moths – insects that suck the minds of their victims dry, leaving them drooling idiots, and which operate across multiple dimensions, making them almost impossible to kill. Oh, and if you look at them, you’re toast, as their wings form patterns that instantly hypnotize any viewer – no saving throw. Taking them down before they breed will require Isaac to form, and handle, a very shaky alliance between creatures, even more bizarre than those already described.
It becomes easy to understand why the author needs 867 pages for this. Part of it is his desire to construct a full world, so he includes a fair amount of stuff that’s not strictly necessary to the plot – politics, religions, etc. – which helps flesh out the bare bones. And you can multiply all those aspects by each of the species involved, with all the description that entails, although it never feels like pointless padding, Miéville doing a good job of mixing it well with sequences that move the plot forward. The results are positively cinematic, and I’d love to see this as a film, even if that would likely take a couple of hundred million to do it justice.
On the other hand, even beyond a massive budget, there are aspects here which would be very difficult to translate; yet removing them would undeniably weaken the effectiveness of the work as a whole. One character vanishes in the second-half, then returns, and it’s hardly a happy ending. And Miéville also pulls a switch very late on, with a reveal concerning the nature of another character – arguably, the most “heroic” in the entire book – that causes both us and the other participants to re-evaluate their entire relationship to that entity. If it works well on the printed page, the result would be almost impossible to pull off on the screen, since it’s so much of a deviation from cinematic structure.
I was somewhat annoyed by some of the pretentious little flourishes, such as persisting in spelling it “chymical”, and never using a two-syllable word when a five-syllable one can be located in his thesaurus. Miéville’s efforts to explain the “crisis engine,” a device which plays a key role in the plot, were also a dismal failure, descending into a mire of tedious pseudo-occult philosophigobbledygook that was completely unenlightening. However, you can’t expect a book of this mammoth size to exist without a few weak spots, and the positives, such as the battles against the slake moths, are page-turners of the highest order. If you’re looking for a richly-detailed work of imagination, with as much effort put into the setting as its plot and characters, this comes highly recommended.
“Old stories would tell how Weavers would kill each other over aesthetic disagreements, such as whether it was prettier to destroy an army of a thousand men or to leave it be, or whether a particular dandelion should or should not be plucked. For a Weaver, to think was to think aesthetically. To act–to Weave–was to bring about more pleasing patterns. They did not eat physical food: they seemed to subsist on the appreciation of beauty.”
a.k.a. The Other Hand
“We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, ‘I survived’.”
Another book that falls into the category of “ones I’d never had read without this project,” it turns out to be a worthwhile endeavour. By coincidence, it’s a story told, like the last book I covered, Cold Mountain., in chapters that alternate between two very different viewpoints. That is really about the only similarity though: while Cold was very much a period piece, this is perhaps even more relevant now – the weekend of the Paris terrorist attacks – than it was when it came out in 2008. It tells the story of “Little Bee,” a Nigerian refugee, who flees a hellish civil conflict in her home land to England, and is then held in an immigration detention center for two years. When let out through a bureaucratic bungle, she makes her way to the home of the only people she knows, the O’Rourke’s, a couple she met on a Nigerian beach under disturbing (and initially vague) circumstances. The other half of the narrative is Sarah O’Rourke, a magazine editor, devoted mother and not-so-devoted wife, who is understandably surprised to see an escaped refugee show up on her suburban doorstep.