Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve

Blade Runner 2049 is excellent. My bladder forgot it was 2 hours 48 minutes long.

 It looks ravishing. And the performances are pretty much all excellent, though Jared Leto as the Head Honcho of the Big Bad Corporation is a bit of a stereotypical baddie. There’s a bit of digital reconstruction of one character from the original film which does not stray too far into the ‘uncanny valley’ and is way better than those in Rogue One, for example.

 The plot is fairly lightweight once you stop to think about it, but in my view it’s fairly essential to have some knowledge of what the first film was about (on a range of levels). There are a lot of visual references back to the first film and the odd line. It also references a lot of other films, both genre and non-genre. The producers obviously wanted a film that would keep fans talking about it for the next 35 years, and they’ve succeeded.

 There’s very little light relief; one good joke from Harrison Ford and some amusing product placements. Most of the actual entertainment comes from spotting references, which shows the sort of audience the producers were aiming at. There are not the same number of quotable one-liners in it, but perhaps that’ll come with time.

 The issues at play in the film are pretty much the same as the first one. But given that those issues – what it means to be human, especially when our machines can be (as Eldon Tyrell said in the first film) “more human than human” – are more relevant now than they were 35 years ago, this is still valid and there’s still a lot to be said and asked in that direction. (On the way back from the cinema, my other half told me about the AI game-playing program AlphaGo Zero, which has surpassed earlier versions of itself in three days by winning 100 successive games of Go and has exceeded all earlier versions of itself without human intervention inside forty days of operation. The same algorithm can be applied to complex scientific problems such as protein folding. There can now be little doubt that we are out-evolving ourselves, making the world of Blade Runner 2049 all the more probable.)

 For all its references back to the original, it’s not a “by-the-numbers” sequel. (Indeed, about twenty years ago, K.W. Jeter was contracted to write two sequel novels – which was an interesting trick seeing as Philip K. Dick never sold the film novelisation rights to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, so there was never a Blade Runner novel – but the first one was definitely ‘by-the-numbers’ and was pretty pedestrian. I never read the second one.) And like the original, which was problematical for the studio because on the basis of the pre-publicity, audiences were expecting a ‘Raiders of the Last Android’, this film is not a Hollywood “Things Exploding!” blockbuster (despite the trailer). This is probably why, like the original, it’s not been big box office. Watching the trailers for forthcoming genre attractions – Geostorm, Justice League and Thor: Ragnarok for example, I could visualise the likely audience and the sort of way those films would pan out. I see none of them being watched again over the next 35 years the way Blade Runner 2049 will be.

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Vapor en EspaÑa by Harald Navé

This beautifully-produced book is a fascinating glimpse back into what is now rapidly becoming history. In 1961, two of the best Austrian railway photographers, Harald Navé and Gerhard Luft, loaded up their Volkswagen and travelled across the Continent to photograph steam trains in Franco’s Spain. Both were highly accomplished photographers, both of trains and in general; what they found is recorded here in high quality reproductions of (mainly) Navé’s work. At this time, Spain was still a major location for steam locomotives – and not just any steam locomotives. Many engines found on secondary duties, shunting yards in small out-of-the-way towns, were anything up to 100 years old. Spain bought railway equipment from all over the Continent, from the UK and America; and so we see engines from the likes of Henschel, Krauss, Hanomag, SLM-Winterthur, Fives-Lille and SACM (Belgium) rubbing shoulders with British engines from the likes of Nasmyth Wilson, Beyer Peacock, Sharp Stewart and North British, and American engines from ALCO, and with home-produced product from makers such as MTM, Euskalduna and Babcock & Wilcox – that last one being a works set up as a joint venture of some sort during World War I with one of the Spanish railway companies and the said American industrial boiler company, hardly known for locomotives outside of Spain. Rolling stock was equally variously sourced, and much of the signalling equipment came from British manufacturers, resulting in a railway scene that looks strangely familiar to many British enthusiasts. Engines ranged from tiny 0-4-0T shunters to hulking great broad gauge Garratt 4-8-4+4-8-4 articulated engines.

We see a few signs of the state of Spain in those days; little high-rise development, few motorised vehicles and children scratching for scraps in a few photographs.

There is quite a detailed text about Navé and Luft’s journey which goes into some degree of detail, and the supporting introduction and afterword by the book’s editor, Antonio Portas, seems quite heartfelt and, yes, passionate about this material (as far as my limited Spanish can ascertain). The publishers appear to be a recent arrival (2016) on the Spanish railway publishing scene, and what other items I have seen of their output look to be of equally high quality (they have made a translation of Trevor Rowe’s Railway Holiday in Spain, originally published by Ian Allan in 1962-63, with a new selection of contemporary photographs).

The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod

Starting out as what looks like a cyberpunk-ish take on Mars (except it’s not the Mars we know and love), the second chapter plunges the reader into mid-1970s radical student politics in Glasgow, though this seems for a while to be merely a framing device. MacLeod soon shows himself to be quite capable of subverting his own political agenda by having his two main characters in the 1970s plot timeline work through all the radical socialist ideas and then come up with a libertarian solution to world conflict that works fine until the flaws in the plan become obvious and it falls apart badly. World War 3 follows.

It’s only as you get to the midpoint of the novel that the reader realises that we are in a sort of prequel to MacLeod’s first novel, The Star Fraction, showing how the Balkanised Britain of that novel came to be. The focus is actually rather wider than in that novel, and indeed from the perspective of this book there seems to be more organisation than The Star Fraction would lead you to believe. The action of that novel is referenced a little obliquely. Eventually, both timelines come together as the technology and the political actions that started in the 1970s snowball (how convincing readers in the early 21st century will find that snowballing is debateable). For a novel dating from 1996, the technological props don’t appear too outdated, and indeed the AI tech described seems to get closer by the day! MacLeod also exploits – without making it obvious – advances in medical science resulting in his characters having extended lifespans.

The plot suddenly opens out into what Brian Aldiss once called “wide-screen Baroque” and we jump almost seamlessly from the fairly ground-based political scenario of the 1970s/80s/90s timeline into the thick of almost full-blown space opera.

The action of the novel appears to segue seamlessly into the next novel in the sequence, The Cassini Division. Its connections to The Star Fraction are not obvious, and this novel could be read on its own. It also is far more subtle in its handling of the politics.

The Crow Road by Iain Banks

Prentice McHoan is an under-graduate studying history at Glasgow University in the late 1980s. His extended family are well-placed Scots middle class from Argyll. but in the course of a year Prentice and his family go through a time of upheaval that will leave none of them untouched.

I came to The Crow Road rather late, and also labouring under the burden of being quite familiar with the BBC TV dramatization of some years back (of which, Banks himself said “Disturbingly better than the book in too many places.”). So to some extent, my perception of the novel, its plot and characters was influenced by my foreknowledge of events and characterisations. This didn’t spoil the book for me, and indeed it may have helped with Banks’ non-chronological story-telling (but then again, I coped with the non-linear timelines in Use of Weapons OK); it also meant that where the book and tv series differed, this was a new discovery for me (mainly in terms of scenes that didn’t make it to the screen, some more of Prentice’s inner dialogue, and a few variations as to plot – nothing substantial, though). There are even a few more characters in the novel, especially the children of Uncles Hamish and Fergus; they are not relevant to the plot particularly, but they are present in the book and have adequate stature in it.

I was also struck by the humour in the book, though sometimes some of Prentice’s witticisms and puns seemed a bit contrived, but probably quite in character. And there were definite instances where Banks’ alter ego, Iain M. Banks, tried to intrude, with reflections on the nature of Time, Space and Everything.

At the outset, everything was so familiar that I was slightly underwhelmed because I knew what would happen next. But the writing and incidental detail kept my interest until I found myself staying up really late to finish the book off despite knowing how it ended. The perspective I had from the tv series also distracted me somewhat, because from the outset, that made clear that there was a mystery about the disappearance of Rory; but in the novel, it is only about half-way through that it dawns on the reader that Rory is a character only seen in flashback and that he is, in fact, a missing person.

Others have commented on the sense of place in the novel and assumed that this was Banks writing about his homeland. But Banks came from the east coast of Scotland – The Bridge is more influenced by his upbringing than this book – as opposed to the west coast where The Crow Road is set. But he obviously knew the area well, as the sense of place and landscape is very strong, and the place-names, though fictional, ring very true. Gallanach is actually a farmhouse to the south of Oban; the McHoan family may well take its name from Kilchoan Loch further to the south between Oban and Kilmartin. It is very easy to place the action of the story in a known landscape, only very slightly at an angle to our own reality.

In all, then, this is a family saga that morphs into a mystery and gets to a resolution via some quite deep speculation on Life, the Universe and the nature (or otherwise) of God. And the characters get to have a lot of fun along the way, which we are able to share.

Some kind of fairy tale by Graham Joyce

It’s become an everyday expression – someone is described as being “away with the fairies” if they seem to be woolgathering, or having odd ideas, or acting strangely. But what if someone came back after twenty years away, claiming actually to have been “away with the fairies”? How would that play with those who were left behind? What does such a disappearance do to family, friends, or the world at large? And how, then, do you undo it when the past comes to call?

That Is the matter at hand in Graham Joyce’s last novel, Some kind of fairy tale. Tara returns to her parents’ house twenty years after she disappeared, though for her, she claims that only six months have passed; six months that she spent in the Realm of Faerie, a place full of earth magic, intense colours and heightened lives full of lust, and love, and art, and death.

Graham Joyce set this novel in his adopted home, the Charnwood Forest to the west of Leicester. The sense of place is such a major factor in this novel, placing the story in a mundane location of semi-rural England, but with the fantastical just a half-turn away. Like other later novels of his, Joyce populated the book with characters from real life contemporary England, and these are well drawn even if they have little more than walk-on parts. Tara turns up on her elderly parents’ doorstep; but from an early stage in the book, the central character shifts to her brother, Peter, and her former boyfriend, Ritchie. Ritchie had been given a hard time by the police when Tara first disappeared; the disappearance also killed the friendship between Ritchie and Peter.

Ritchie was perhaps the best-drawn of the characters; an aging muso whose career almost but not quite achieved lift-off. And there’s an amusing sub-plot concerning Peter’s son, Jack, a thirteen-year-old who is just beginning to discover that the world doesn’t always work in his favour. Jack becomes involved, very much against his will, with another character who turns out to be full of surprises.

The style is Joyce’s trademark social realism, though I found that the humour quotient was increased in this novel. And one of the chapter-heading epigraphs was a naughty joke on Graham’s part. All in all, I found it a compulsive read. The ending is not tidily wrapped up, but really could not have been any other way; and some of the characters find redemption. And the Realm of Faerie is always there, just around the corner…

Brewery railways of Burton on Trent, by Cliff Shepherd

Burton-on-Trent, in Staffordshire, became a centre for the brewing industry from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. The growth of the canal network saw the breweries able to start exporting beer into Europe; with the opening of the Birmingham & Derby Railway in 1839, and its later absorption into the Midland Railway, Burton found itself at the centre of the rapidly growing British railway network, and the various brewers started sending their wares out by rail. At its height, Burton provided a quarter of all the beer sold in Britain, and by 1880 there were more than 30 breweries operating in the town. Legislative changes, changes to drinking habits and commercial considerations led to consolidation so that by 1980 only three main breweries remained in the town.

The need for rail transport gave rise to an intricate network of lines that penetrated the town centre and served almost every brewery, maltings and cooperage as well as many other commercial customers (such as the makers of the well-known table condiment, Branston Pickle, named for the former munitions factory where Crosse & Blackwell made it – but only for a period of four years in the 1920s). This led to a multitude of sidings, signal boxes and 32 level crossings, which could make navigating around the town by road a very long-winded affair.

The Bass brewery in particular had an extensive system of its own whose railway operations were run by the company’s Chief Engineer, Herbert Couchman, from 1891-1917. Couchman was a perfectionist, and much of the operating practice he laid down for the Bass railway persisted up to the end of rail transport in the late 1960s. He ran the Bass railway as if it were a main line railway company with highly exacting standards; this rubbed off on many of those who worked with him, both with Bass and in other brewery companies, and contributed to the extremely high standard of railway operations in Burton.

The author, Cliff Shepherd, was born in Burton and lived for a number of years in close proximity to the Worthington brewery’s railway. He produced this detailed history for the Industrial Railway Society and it can justly claim to be the last word on the subject. From a literary viewpoint, there are a few instances where the book’s status as a collection of magazine articles shows (a few unedited references to illustrations or drawings that are not present in the book version), and a lack of editing shows up the book as an amateur publication, albeit a very well-produced one. But let us not forget that ‘amateur’ is a word meaning ‘one who loves’. Yes, a good editor could have improved a few grammatical errors, and tightened up the narrative a little – there is the odd heading that doesn’t bear any relationship to the text that follows, and a few anecdotes are thrown into the text in roughly the right place with little contextual linking; but these are minor considerations given the very great strengths of the rest of the book.

The book is well illustrated with photographs and a great number of detailed maps by Ian Lloyd, which for once do not miss out places mentioned in the text.

I acquired this book because my father was involved in the scheme to rationalise the various exchange sidings and close the British Railways branches that connected the breweries together as the brewing companies made the transition to road transport. At that time – 1965 – the expectation was that new sources of rail freight would arise, and the signalling system (which my father in part designed and helped implement) was intended to last through the rest of the twentieth century and reflect the new developments in technology that the 1960s were bringing to the railways. Instead, it was the precursor of a decline in rail freight which resulted in a change of emphasis away from wagonload freight to trainload, and the adoption of computer management of freight loads and wagons. For this reason, I was very interested in this book as my father always spoke of the railway wonder that Burton-on-Trent was. This book clearly shows the extent of the system and what made it so special.

Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks (revisited)

(This review was first written and published in March 2014. Following correspondence with another reader, I realised that there was a better way to make one of my key points about the book, and so this is a re-publication of the amended review, dated July 2017.)

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

I read this book first on release, and I was shocked, on picking it up again, to see that it is now more than 25 years old. But I wanted to re-read the Culture novels in light of Ian Banks’ appallingly early death. I’m pleased I have started down this road.

This was Banks’ first sf novel, and indeed is based around a novel he wrote quite some time earlier. And yet there is so much of the Culture already worked out but unstated in the book. The very first line made my jaw drop open when I re-read it; it was something that neither I nor anyone else could possibly have noticed on a first reading, because we all still had the whole Culture to discover.

“The ship didn’t even have a name.”

Reading that as a newcomer to Banks’ SF, still to discover what the Culture was about, that sounds just like a striking opening line that grabs the attention. But just read that again, this time in the light of everything we’ve learnt since about the Culture, Minds, and the sort of gonzo names Ships choose for themselves.

“The ship didn’t even have a name.”

Now we see that the situation isn’t just life and death, it’s much more serious than that. This is a Mind in extremis, who is having to put its very survival before everything else. Of course, by the end of the book, we see that same Mind and the name that it chose for itself; and it’s a name that has personal resonance for it, not just a throwaway comment on the nature of Life, the Universe and Everything (as someone else once said).

And it shows that Iain Banks could store up surprises for us that could go off like a depth charge in our own fragile minds years after he committed the words to the page.

We are rapidly thrust into an interstellar war, and again we are somewhat confounded, because the story is told from the point of view of a character working as a spy for the side we would not assume Banks would be rooting for. The Culture is painted for big segments of this book as the villains; only as we get closer to the end (and the appendices) do we realise that Banks is taking the big view here.

The Idirans, the religious race opposing the Culture, are painted a bit as central casting warriors – all big, Brian Blessed voices and ‘today is a good day to die’. Yet the Idiran characters are also drawn with reasonable sympathy. And whilst the main character, Horza, has a series of adventures that could be out of any “space pirate/mercenary” story, the characters in the rag-tag band he allies with, are equally well-drawn. It’s true to say that the cast of characters contracts rather towards the end of the book, and as the cast list gets smaller, the remaining characters get better described. And that includes the mechanicals. Banks has intelligent machines in his Culture universe, and they are characterised as well as the biologicals. The drone in this story, Unaha-Closp, comers over a slightly peevish and irritable, but essentially a solid character who delivers when the chips are down.

The protagonist’s nemesis, the Culture agent Balveda Perosteck, seems to be playing the femme fatale at the beginning of the book; later, when she is taken prisoner, she begins to display Munchhausen-like symptoms as the situation changes around the band of protagonists.

This book came out in the general renaissance of space opera that took place in British sf during the 1980s and 1990s, and it has its share of what Brian Aldiss called “wide-screen baroque” set-pieces. These are carried off with cinematic relish. There is also some of the Banksian grand guignol that he was renowned for from his first novel, The Wasp Factory. Those of a squeamish disposition and vivid imagination might be advised to look elsewhere. And the humour is specifically Ian Banks’ own, as well. It’s a particularly Scots wit, and none the worse for all that.

On reflection, as I have read Banks’ later Culture novels, I’ve come to think that the problem some people have with this book is rooted precisely in its place in Banks’ writing career. Consider Phlebas is a straight space opera: admittedly one with a fantastic imagination for detail churning away under the surface, and a great precursor to what was to come; but at root it is a science fiction adventure story, written with an eye to selling it to a publisher as a solid entry in an sf catalogue. With this introduction to the Culture out of the way, Banks’ later explorations of this universe are very different in pace and plotting.

The novel ends with something of a whimper rather than a neat conclusion (and with a ‘Rosebud’ moment). But isn’t that what life’s like, the big difference between reality and novels? Real life doesn’t often have neat endings with all the loose ends tied up, and neither does this novel. But above all, the book is an introduction to the Culture universe, a rich and fascinating playground that Banks never finished exploring. Later novels may well have been deeper and may well have had more literary complexity; but when I first read this book, I was blown away and wanted to read more. And in the years that followed, I was duly rewarded. What more can you ask?