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Monday, November 10, 2003  
Off the Web

  • Reading
  • Do stop at Perdido Street Station

    Young British speculative fiction writer China Mieville is best known for being a candidate for this year's Hugo Award. He deserves the attention. Perdido Street Station is the kind of novel Zadie Smith would call "baggy" -- nearly 700 pages of material that probes into every nook and cranny of an imagined society.

    That society is New Crobuzon, a city that arose centuries ago in the shadow of the remains of a partly-excavated leviathan. Huge bones rise above the city and generate unease among those who fly near them or tamper with them. NC is a semi-realistic version of cities as we know them, including poverty amidst affluence, squalor beside beauty and corruption as a companion to order. The citizens, though, are a departure from realism. In addition to humans, they include khepris -- creatures with the bodies of human females and heads of beetles, wyrmen -- squat birdmen who act as couriers and vodyanoi -- an aquactic people who can survive on land if they have a way to keep wet. There are even more exotic denizens available in smaller numbers.

    Into this city that would shock Dr. Moreau comes one of those rare specimens -- a garuda. He is an elegant, intelligent and sophisticated blend of avian and homo sapiens. The species dwells in a desert more than a thousand miles from New Crobuzon, though a relative handful have immigrated to the city. This garuda, Yagharek, is seeking one Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin. He is obsessed with regaining something he has lost. As punishment for an crime back home, his wings have been shorn. The crippled birdman walks awkwardly on feet never meant to carry anyone continually. He masks his deformity with fake wings to give the appearance of a healthy garuda.

    Isaac is a renegade scientist who also has an obsession. He is interested in 'crisis energy.' He believes the heightened energy produced during crises can be harnessed and used as a source of power. Isaac, much impressed with the birdman, accepts a commission to try to return him to the sky.

    Isaac's friendship with Yagharek is not his only close relationship with a Xenian -- sapient nonhuman species. His girlfriend, Lin, is a khepri artist. But, their relationship is fraught with tension because the interspecies relationship is a source of shame for Isaac. Lin's own new commission, to mold a sculpture of a crime lord, becomes a significant subplot to the story.

    The scientist first takes a practical approach to the connundrum of flight. He solicits specimens of flying things so he can study them. Among the panoply of life Isaac acquires is a mysterious multicolored caterpillar. Curious about what the unidentified creature will become, Isaac keeps it after he has moved on to theoretical study of flight. He learns the only substance the caterpillar will eat is a narcotic called 'dreamshit,' which induces waking dreams in humans. Eventually, the caterpillar cocoons.

    Meanwhile, Isaac has decided on the solution to Yagharek's problem. He will construct a 'crises engine' that will generate energy to allow the garuda to fly. Of course, the applications of such an invention will be myriad. It is a brilliant scientific achievement.

    Isaac's well-laid plan is set aside to deal with an amazing crisis when he arrives back at his workshop after a frolic with Lin. One of his co-tenants has been rendered a human vegetable. He learns from a wyrman messenger who witnessed the assault that a huge winged beast with hypnotic powers attacked his friend and literally sucked his consciousness out of him. Isaac also discovers that whatever was in the cocoon has broken free of its cage and disappeared. Soon, there are other casualties. Before long, New Crobuzon is in thrall to five slake-moths, creatures who dine on the minds of those who dream. Each night is a horror as the moths invade the citizens' subconsciousnesses with nightmares and take new victims.

    Partly responsible for the society shattering events, Isaac tries to find a solution to the rampage of the moths. However, he is hampered by opponents, including the government and a crime boss determined to recapture the moths and use them to produce the dreamshit drug. With a diverse band of allies, Isaac will eventually end the reign of terror, but at an appalling price in lives and resources.

    Perdido Street Station is a page-turner. Each time a reader believes he has enough to digest for now, he is led on to the next passage or chapter. The description of the plot I have given is barebones. There are many twists and turns. There are also additional protagonists and villians, some of whom are worthy of novels of their own. But, the book is not without imperfections. It would have been better to save some of these characters and material for another novel in my opinion. There is so much going on in this narrative they are in danger of not getting their due. Isaac is a rather wimpy hero. He makes so many mistakes that I felt ambivalent about him at the end of the book. At least half of the carnage could have been prevented if Isaac had acted reasonably or quickly. He becomes the judge of Yagharek, who I consider a more honorable person despite his crime. An unintended irony, I suspect.

    China Mieville burst onto the literary scene with his first novel, King Rat. It was one of those performances from a new writer people often don't expect to see a worthy follow-up to. They were wrong. Perdido Street Station won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the British Fantasy Award. Mieville has confirmed his prodigious ability with his latest award-winning novel, The Scar. I believe there will be equally good books in his, and our, future.

  • Viewing
  • V is for victory

    l missed V in its real life iteration, when, apparently, millions of Americans sat transfixed before their television screens watching the science fiction miniseries. However, over the years, sci-fi loving friends have pestered me to watch V, saying writer and director Kenneth Johnson's epic, which debuted in 1983, is a must see. I finally gave in this week, two decades after the series aired. Instead of searching for the unopened DVD that is around here somewhere, I screened the video version. What is my verdict on V? Mixed, but mainly favorable.

    The storyline is a precursor for the '90s blockbuster, Independence Day. Large, saucer-shaped dreadnoughts appear above major cities worldwide. Human munitions, as deadly as they are, seem puny when compared to the technical achievements of the aliens. Like the extraterrestrials in ID, these are reptilian. But, they mask their real, threatening identity, claiming to have come in peace. Most people, in keeping with their tendency to be happy to have authority figures tell them what to think, say and do, quickly succumb to the not at all subtle manipulations of their friends from Sirius. The aliens are particularly successful in turning members of the scientific community into bete noires among the citizenry through a campaign of disinformation and disappearances. However, a few Americans begin to notice oddities in the visitors and inquire into their origins and plans.

    Foremost among the questioners are a television reporter and a medical student. After sneaking aboard the mothership, Mike Donovan (Marc Singer) discovers the aliens are iguana-like reptiles who snack on live rodents and intend to exploit Earth for their own purposes. Meanwhile, Julie Parrish (Faye Grant), a biochemist doing her residency at a Los Angeles hospital, finds herself ostracized along with other scientists and medical professionals who might expose the visitors if not discredited. Rather than wait to be arrested and brainwashed or murdered, she goes underground and sets out to solve the mystery of who the aliens are and what they want. The two eventually meet, and along with other heroic humans, form the core of the resistance movement. They commandeer weapons from the enemy, carry out guerilla raids and penetrate the security of the alien cadre.

    However, the antagonists are equally, if not more, intriguing. Diana (Jane Badler), the striking scientific officer of the invasion force, has masterminded a mind control mechanism to use on humans, a form of cryogenic storage so that people can be transported to Sirius, and, is working on other nefarious schemes. Completely ruthless, she will stop at nothing that might be useful in achieving her goals. The human villains are weak, but also dangerous. Motivated by ambition and greed, both Donovan's lover and mother willingly become pawns of the enemy. A young Jew discovers the sense of power he covets as a member of the visitors' paramilitary youth organization.

    By the end of the movie, the invaders are on the way to achieving their objectives of depriving Earth of its water and harvesting a human crop. However, the resistance is well on its way too, as distrust of the visitors spreads. In an exciting ground to air battle, the resisters hold their own against an attack by aliens in high tech aircraft.

    The movie shows its age in some ways. Donovan's video camera is huge in comparison to today's gear. (It alone seems enough to tip off the aliens when he is covertly filming them.) And, believe it or not, the only photographs of the aliens are stored on a single tape. The extraterrestrials, though grotesque, will have been upstaged by the creatures in the Alien series and other later movies in your mind. The special effects are also less than enthralling. The dialogue is sometimes laughably hackneyed and the nonwhite characters are embarrassingly stereotypical. However, the shortcomings don?t mar the movie enough to ruin it. A strong plot and vigorous cast make V compelling viewing, despite it being the sci-fi movie equivalent of middle-aged.

    The story of V continues in a sequel, V: The Final Battle. Read my review of it here.

  • Listening
  • I listened to a lot of Elliott Smith during the last two weeks, including my favorite album, XO. I've also revisited one of my favorite artists from the 80s and 90s, Don Henley. I'm pleased with how well his songs have held up.

    I'm taking advantage of iTunes new audio book capability by listening to some material from audio sources on my iPod. A review is forthcoming.

    Note: Some of the material in this entry appeared at Blogcritics.

    5:14 PM