City of Lost Children

If you have not seen La cité des enfants perdus, directed by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, you have missed out. This film, although now more than 20 years old, is glorious. It is a French dark science-fiction film with steampunk and surrealist elements. It is visually stunning down to the smallest detail with gloomy canals and streets, atmospheric bars and old decrepit buildings, often presented at an almost grotesque, distorted angle. Even the costumes are top-notch, signed Jean Paul Gaultier. It is complicated, unnerving and almost claustrophobic, but beautiful in its unpleasantness.

For those that write, this is the kind of film that tickles the brain. Here, in viewing, sneaky plots are hatched and oddball what-ifs are born.

Synopsis (some spoilers ahead): The story revolves around the kidnapping of children from an unnamed port city by a cult of cyborgs, called the Cyclops. The children are delivered to a man-like creature called Krank, who steals their dreams for himself. Krank, unable to dream and aging rapidly as a result, keeps the children in his lair at an abandoned oilrig, guarded by his creations (six child-like sons (clones), a dwarf and a brain in a vat). One of the kidnapped children’s adopted elder brother, a carnival strongman named One, is hired by a gang of orphans to steal a safe, but spots the Cyclops during the theft. He then joins forces with Miette, one of the orphans, to save his brother. [End of synopsis, to avoid major spoilers]

The story contains conjoined twins that are also criminal masterminds, trained venomous fleas, a dream-stealing machine, a lost scientist and a fair few fistfights and explosions, in addition to everything mentioned in the brief synopsis above. Still, in my humble opinion, it is not that strange. Of course, the surrealism is present, but the story is quite easy to follow despite making the odd jump. My preferred mode of watching this particular film is letting it drift past, slowly sink in, and not worry too much about the details. To me, the City of Lost Children is more about emotion and ideas than about plot.

So what are the emotions and the ideas? It has been discussed in some detail, brushing upon the dual nature of capitalism and the different faces of human nature, to name but a few. My own thoughts go towards greed. Both sides of the story’s equation contain protagonists and villains. One and Miette are clearly heroic figures in this tale, foiled by very human (and very criminal) elements. At the same time, Krank’s creations are often innocent, foiled by their creator. To me, the overarching theme is how greed and personal gain at the expense of others (the twins, Krank, the Cyclops) conflicts with altruism (Miette, who helps One; One, who seeks to save his brother). It may not be a particularly advanced take on what is arguably a rather complex film, but it is a convenient umbrella for many of the finer discussion points (capitalism, human nature etc.).

I also think there is an interesting contrast between innocence and experience. Both the human side and the mechanical/created side has a sharp divide between those who are innocent versus those who are not. This is perhaps the most obvious in the relationship between One and Miette, where One is the innocent despite being the adult. It is a lovely contrast, and it allows Miette a very interesting role as the responsible person in their relationship, acting as the guardian of the interests of One. The difference in strength (highlighted by one scene in particular) serves to accentuate this unusual balance. This deviation from traditional roles and relationships is something I always appreciate in storytelling, and The City of Lost Children has it in spades.

Miette is, in fact, one of the most interesting characters in the film. Her experience and cynicism are believable, given that the landscape of the film is that of exploitation of children by adults (either by kidnapping and dream-stealing, or by forcing them into criminal activities). The city of lost children, and lost childhood, indeed.

The performances are solid. Particularly Daniel Emilfork as Krank, and Ron Perlman as One. Perlman was cast on the back of his role in Guillermo del Toro’s Kronos (another great film), and his performance as the taciturn, child-like adult is excellent. Again, it plays wonderfully against Miette, less than half his size and more than twice his intellect and experience.

Angelo Badalamenti (of Twin Peaks fame) created the soundtrack, with the theme sung by the amazing Marianne Faithful. The result is light and ‘carnivalesque’ at times, but with an underlying seriousness and a sombre feel. I particularly love the main theme, L’anniversaire D’irvin and Miette’s theme, but the entire soundtrack is worth a listen.

Have a look at the trailer for a taste of what the film is like:

2017 in horror, fantasy, sci-fi and non-fiction

As usual, I’ve got a long list of books that I want to read in 2017. My goodreads reading challenge is at a modest 35 and I have no specific plans for which ones I’ll choose, but there a few new releases in my preferred genres this year that I’m particularly excited about.

Horror: In the past I’ve tended to seek out older horror novels, but several upcoming releases have caught my eye this time around. Ania Ahlborn’s The Devil Crept In, which centres around disturbing disappearances in the small town of Deer Valley, Oregon, looks great. As does Little Heaven by Nick Cutter, a tale set in a ominous New Mexico backwoods settlement called Little Heaven. I’m also keen to read Cherie Priest’s Brimstone, described by the author as one part Penny Dreadful and one part American Horror Story. Should be fun! Finally, there’s Sarah Pinborough’s Behind her eyes, which I am getting simply on the back of knowing Pinborough’s knack for deeply unsettling and menacing storylines.

BrimstoneBehind Her Eyes

Sci-Fi and Fantasy: Having read the two previous Aftermath books, I’m keen to see how this Star Wars space opera featuring Norra Wexley and her rag-tag team ends in Aftermath: Empire’s End (Chuck Wendig). I’m also looking forward to the final installment of V.E.Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, A Conjuring of Light, in which the fate of the four Londons will be settled. Oathbringer, the third book in Brandon Sanderson’s fantastic Stormlight Archive series, will be released in November, and I’m salivating at the promise of another visit to Roshar. M.R.Carey releases the prequel to the excellent apocalyptic zombie story Girl with all the Gifts, titled The Boy on the Bridge, and on top of that, Neil Gaiman is fictionalizing Norse mythology in the book by the same name, which should be a treat. 2017 looks like it will be a good year for fantasy and sci-fi.

Empire's End: Aftermath (Star Wars) by Chuck Wendig

Non-fiction: In terms of non-fiction, I have singled out Beyond Inifinity: an expedition to the outer-limits of mathematics by Eugenia Cheng and In Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra. Both come highly recommended and the topics are intriguing and wonderfully complex, so my expectations are high.

 

Autumn books!

I love autumn. The chill in the air, the colours, the smells, the darker nights. To me, autumn is hot, comforting drinks and nice, comforting books.

pumpkins-2009

This autumn, my reading list is particularly self-indulgent. I almost wish for poor weather to justify the hours I plan to spend on the sofa with a stack of books. While it is not looking like 2016 will be particularly nice and chilly (given recent heat records), we can always hope for a few thunderstorms. Given my penchant for horror, that would suit me just fine.

Fellside img_2261by M.R.Carey has been on my radar for some time, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to wait until Halloween to dig into that particular book. A twist on the classic ghost story set in a prison at the edge of the Yorkshire moors should fit the season nicely. I have been told that Fellside is a book susceptible to spoilers, like Carey’s earlier The Girl With All The Gifts, so I’m staying clear of reviews, although ratings suggest I’m in for a treat. Actually, just looking at the cover makes me excited. amityvillecover

I’m planning on tackling an old classic: The Amityville Horror: A True Story by Jay Anson, as it is one of those stories I’ve watched but never actually read. I have been told that the book is creepier than the film(s), so I’ve got my hopes up.

I’m also looking forward to a steampunk fix. Island of Birds, the sequel to Austin Hackney’s Beyond the Starline, has recently been released, and I may also pick up a book in the Clockwork Century series by Cherie Priest, probably Clementine or Dreadnought. If anyone has any thoughts on which I should go for after Boneshaker, let me know in the comments.

aftermathYet another sequel, Aftermath: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig, is also on my list, which should get me in the mood for the upcoming Star Wars Rogue One film in December (not that I need to get more in the mood for Star Wars). I truly enjoyed the first Aftermath novel, although I am aware that the response to it was not uniformly positive. All I can say is that Mister Bones is right up there with BB-8 on the list of favourite droids, but for very different reasons.

I also plan to settle down with two non-fiction books: 1812: Napolerabidon’s Fatal March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski, which was recommended to me more than a year ago by a friend, and Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, simply because the subject matter is fascinating. The monster du jour, zombies, do not make an appearance in Rabid, if reviews are to be believed, but I expect to get a fair few parallels with werewolf myths in addition to the history and biology of one of the nastiest viruses out there. The scientist in me is quite excited about Rabid.

In short, it’s looking like it will be a pretty good autumn. What are you planning on reading? Let me know in the comments.

Book review: Flowers for Algernon

Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon is one of those books I happened to stumble upon and decided to give a shot. Wedged between two other books purchased that day, I didn’t even open it until a few days later. But when I did, I didn’t close it until the last page. (Slight spoilers ahead).

If you haven’t read it yet, Flowers for Algernon is a classic masterwork. The story is about Charlie Gordon, a below-average intelligent man, who is the first human subject for an experimental surgical procedure designed to improve intelligence. Preceded by the successful surgery on a laboratory mouse, the eponymous Algernon, Charlie’s intervention is successful, and his intelligence begins to rise.

The story unfolds through diary entries written by Charlie. We see how his grammar and spelling improves, how he becomes capable of complex thinking and expressing himself clearly, both on the page and to others. We see how his relationships grow from simple to difficult – first as he discovers slights and jokes at his expense that he previously had not had the capacity to spot, and second as he inevitably surpasses those around him, from his beloved teacher Alice Kinnian to the ambitious research lead Dr Nemur. His ability to form meaningful relationships suffers from the widening gap in intelligence between himself and those of a normal intellect, a cruel mirror of his former life. And then we observe how he regresses, just as Algernon did. From his scientific prowess and rich vocabulary down to his literacy – it is all stripped away. And throughout this process, we observe his grief and despair at the loss of his mind, followed by the inevitable isolation as a man who remember his former self but knows that it is hopelessly out of reach.

I’m normally not too fond of the epistolary form, but in this case I think it is perfect. It allows Keyes to present both the rise and descent of Charlie’s intelligence directly, and the result is almost painfully personal.

The novel does what most great sci-fi does: it uses the genre to debate current problems. Sci-fi has a long and illustrious history of social commentary, emphasised by its larger-than-life settings. You can strip human society bare when extrapolating using aliens, spaceships or futuristic drugs. In Flowers for Algernon, we are treated to the question of intelligence versus emotion, to the role of intellect in human relationships, and perhaps more importantly, to the mistreatment of those with a mental disability. Keyes wrote the original short story (which was given a Hugo award and later developed into the more familiar novel) against the backdrop of his own work teaching English to students with special needs.

Flowers for Algernon is the kind of book that works perfectly, from start to finish, with a story so clear it seems inevitable that it was written. It is perhaps the most bitter-sweet sci-fi book I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, and it left me awed and heartbroken at the same time. In Charlie Gordon’s own final words:

“PS please if you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard.”

algernon

Book Review: The World Without Us

I read a fair bit of non-fiction and often find that these books can be just as strange as their creative counterparts. The World Without Us (Alan Weisman, 2008) is one such stranger-than-fiction book.

What would happen if all humans suddenly vanished? How long before wildlife reclaimed cities? How long would our buildings last? How long before all traces of us are gone? In short, what would the world without us look like? It’s a fascinating hypothetical and sounds like it should be more than a bit disconcerting, but the book itself is quite positive in its description of our impermanence.

There are examples of places on earth where sudden human abandonment has already happened, including the Korean demilitarized zone and Chernobyl.

Chernobyl and Pripyat (4853730269).jpg

Pripyat, Ukraine, abandoned April 27, 1986, the day after Chernobyl.

“In Pripyat, an unlovely cluster of concrete 1970s high-rises, returning poplars, purple asters and lilacs have split the pavement and invaded buildings. Unused asphalt streets sport a coat of moss.”

In the wake of human disappearance, nuclear plants would eventually overheat, and the world might see Chernobyl after Chernobyl. It might also see the triumphant return of many endangered species. In Korea, the 4 km wide demilitarized zone is one of few remaining refuges for the Asiatic black bear with its white chest patch, the tusked Chinese water deer, and the exceedingly rare Amur leopard.

What about cities? The book uses New York City as an example. This is, as most other cities, a ‘tamed’ landscape. The land upon which NYC was built was once packed with streams, now replaced by the storm sewer systems and kept in check by more than 700 pumps. If humans disappeared, the pumps would stop, the streams flood the tunnels and streets, eventually carving out rivers as streets collapse. Flooding of the subway would take no more than two days, and the cave-in of streets only a few years. Post-apocalyptic fiction describing long-abandoned concrete cities still structurally intact might just be a bit generous, if truth be told.

“As Lexington Avenue caves in, it becomes a river. Well before then, however, pavement all over town would have already been in trouble.”

Wildlife already exists in our presence and would flourish in our absence. This new New York would see foxes and coyotes, deer and bears, maybe the odd domestic cat gone feral, yet cockroaches would die without heated buildings at these latitudes and rats might also not do well without our garbage to live upon.

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The abandoned High Line, New York City.

This is post-apocalyptic non-fiction at its finest. Old stone buildings linger, modern buildings not so much. Water seeps into cracks, freezes in winter and tears concrete and asphalt apart. Plastic and bronze, however, are the stuff of forever. Millions of years from now, bronze sculptures in our image could be staring blindly at the hypothetical visitor to our planet.

The World Without Us is nicely written, engaging and compelling. The first third of the book in particular is highly recommended. It does veer off a bit mid-way through the book, but despite these asides, it remains worth the time. An excellent book for any writer of post-apocalyptic fiction as well as science enthusiasts. This is a ‘what if’ that stays with you.

(free chapter here: http://www.worldwithoutus.com/excerpt.html)

 

2016 in books – a selection

I’m thrilled about by my reading list for 2016. Something old, something new, all of it exciting. These are the novels I particularly can’t wait to read.

2016 releases

The Bands of Mourning / Shadows of Self (Brandon Sanderson). Fantasy western set in the vast cosmere. I’ll be reading both back to back after the Bands of Mourning is released later this month. Having enjoyed the first book, Alloy of Law, immensely, it’s terrific to be having two new ones on my list.  

Fellside (M. R. Carey). Creepy, atmospheric Yorkshire-based story from the author of The Girl With All The Gifts?  Yes, please. April release.

Edit: I’ve just learnt that one of my writer friends on Twitter, Austin Hackney, is releasing the first book, Beyond the Starline, of his steampunk trilogy, Dark Sea. Will definitely be picking that one up too. http://www.thedarksea.com/Beyond the Starline

 

Pre-2016 releases

Find Me (Laura van den Berg). Dystopian novel that has been compared to Never Let Me Go and A Handmaid’s Tale.

The Emperor of All Maladies (Siddharta Mukherjee) – winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. A personal, historical and medical account of cancer.

Star Wars: Aftermath (Chuck Wendig). This one has received mixed reviews, but after seeing the film (twice), it’s definitely high up there on my list.

The City and The City (China Miéville). It’s been on my list forever, and I don’t know why I have not read it yet. Has received accolade upon accolade, and I’m sure I’ll be beating myself up for not reading it sooner.

1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (Adam Zamoyski). Recommended by a friend, whose opinion I highly value. Excited to delve into a part of history about which I know embarrassingly little.

The Haunting of Hill House / We Have Always Lived In the Castle (Shirley Jackson). Classic horror that I’ve somehow not read yet. I’m utterly thrilled to have them in store.