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Cloud Atlas: structure versus story

December 2, 2012

I finally got around to watching the Cloud Atlas movie – and wow, the Wachowskis managed to do something I didn’t think was possible. A stunning and enthralling (if three-hour long) masterpiece of cinema in its own right, and a faithful, loving adaptation at the same time.

There are so many things to say about this movie that need a little time to percolate, but one springs to mind immediately. It’s the question of structure, specifically in the way the movie translated the book’s unique and entirely literary format.

See, Cloud Atlas the book is a series of six stories, all set in different times and places, that are chopped in half and inter-spliced. The structure is something like this: 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1, with story one kicking us off, breaking half way, and then only concluding at the very other end of the book, after you’ve taken an extraordinary journey through time, space and culture.

I was half hoping and half dreading that the movie would do something similar. But it chose instead to stick to its format conventions and mixed up the stories according to theme, plot and – most importantly – story arc. Each of the stories’ climaxes happen at the same time, for example, in one giant crescendo of heart-stopping action.

This means, to me, three things.

  1. First, and very noticeably, it’s much easier for the filmmakers to emphasise the themes that run through the story – freedom and entrapment, truth and lies, bravery and cowardice. It also brings to the fore some less obvious topics of discussion, like cannibalism (which is apparent in the film but not something I specifically picked up when reading).
  2. Second, it’s a bit harder to give each story quite the same level of genre distinctiveness. While this undoubtedly came out in the stunning visuals, the stories were all told in the same way – as events happening directly to the characters – rather than as a series of different narrative devices (journal, letters, crime novel, slapstick comedy, sci-fi interrogation and oral account respectively). I’m not sure it could have been done differently on the screen, but it stood out as something lost in adaptation.
  3. Third, it’s easier, and perhaps more necessary, to draw closer parallels and tighter links between the separate stories. In the novel, the connections are ghostly motifs, dropped names and the appearance of the preceding narrative in the current story (so the journal of the first story is mentioned int he letters of the second as a book the character is reading, and so on). The movie takes a more literal approach, mainly in casting the same actors across several stories. It works in film, but it also means the film is saying something quite a bit more direct about the ideas of souls, reincarnation and metaphysical time travel.

In sum, both versions add something valuable to the creative work as a whole. A refreshing feeling, where so many adaptations these days choose to take the most literal of routes. That said, I would love to see an edited version of the movie that mimics the novel structure – just to see if it would still work.

9 reasons why I ordered a Kindle

August 26, 2010

Amazon has made a big change to how it approaches the Kindle. I was intrigued when I saw the price drop and legions of sceptics flock to the page to pre-oder version 3 of device. Looks like a lot has been improved, and Amazon is finally opening up, just a smidge, to the rest of the world. Here are my reasons for joining the crowd on this one:

  1. It’s cheap. My Kindle, case and shipping came in under R1,500. For anyone who loves gadgets, a price point like this is very refreshing.
  2. The books are cheap. A considerable number are even free, or cost less than $2. By all accounts, I’ll make my money back if I buy about 30 books at an average price of $10 (saving R50 or more off the price of a paperback).
  3. There are a lot of books. Even considering region restrictions at Amazon and other sellers, there are still hundreds of thousands of books available (not to mention all those free classics I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while). When I played around with Kindle for PC (great free app), I had no trouble getting pretty much everything I wanted.
  4. It saves shelf space. This is a huge benefit for me – anyone who’s seen my bookshelves will attest that they’re at critical mass. There are lots of books that I haven’t bought because I simply don’t have the space to store them. Now, I can buy these one-off reads and don’t need to worry about physical space.
  5. It’s a single-function device. When I read, I don’t want to be distracted by status updates, email, videos and all the other flotsam of the web. This is why I wouldn’t get an iPad for reading – it’s simply too distracting. I’m looking for a reading device, not a tablet PC.
  6. The screen is awesome. The reason why I don’t read on my PC is because of the bright, glaring screen – after a day at work, the last thing I want to do is spend more time staring at a monitor. The Kindle screen is reflective and reads just like a sheet of paper. The grey-scale images are beautiful too.
  7. It supports most formats. Aside for Amazon’s proprietary format, the Kindle now reads MOBI, PDF, Word, Text and a few others (the notable exception is EPUB, the ebook publishing standard). This is great since I’ve amassed my share of PDF ebooks over the years, and since other ebook sellers and providers (like the awesome Gutenberg Project) use one or more of these.
  8. It has other nifty features. You can download book samples to explore new authors, make notes in the books, use Wikipedia or a dictionary if you get stuck and sync with a whole range of other devices. This sounds like just enough functionality without becomeing distracting.
  9. It’s about time. I’ve been itching for an ereader for ages, and it no longer makes sense to hold out for the perfect one. The Kindle sounds like the best deal, with the best price and widest range of material, that is available today.

So now I’m one of millions of people in the long waiting list for the new device, arrival date still unknown. Since I’ve waited this long, a few more weeks won’t hurt!

Bad, bad books

June 16, 2010

It’s exceedingly rare that I come across a truly awful book. I try to read widely and don’t shy away from picking up new authors and genres, and most of the time I’m pleasantly surprised. Even a mediocre book generally has something going for it: a good character, fast-paced action, shamelessly enjoyable  schlock. But then, once in a while, I come across utter drivel that has not one redeeming quality. Meet Jailbait Zombie by Mario Acevedo.

I picked this book up because it was very cheap and promised to be a silly, fun book with lots of action, drama and romance. It was none of these things. I’m still not quite sure why I wasted valuable reading hours trudging through the sheer awfulness of Acevedo’s prose; I guess I was hoping for a glimmer of that promised quality. It was not found, and I would petition strongly against anybody wasting their time on it.

It did make me think about what makes a book truly bad. I’m not talking average-bad here, but so bad that it’s painful and embarrassing to keep reading. I’ve narrowed it down to three factors.

First, bad language. This covers everything from the range of vocabulary used, to the types of language tricks employed (cliches and their ilk) and even bad editing. Acevedo writes like he’s taken one writing class in his life and has tried to employ the most basic techniques. His action scenes consist of far too many five-word sentences. His descriptions are sparse. He uses cliches – both in statement and plot element form – gratuitously, and he has jarringly repetitive vocabulary. On top of that, the book is riddled with proofing errors and spelling mistakes, which is inexcusable in a “bestselling” novel. If the words on the page simply don’t flow properly, or actually make you cringe, it’s bad writing.

Second, ridiculous characters. It’s one thing to have weird, outlandish, strange characters. It’s another to have completely cheesy, inconsistent and boring ones. You’d think you couldn’t go wrong with an noir-style, fast-taking vampire PI, but Acevedo manages it. I’ve never cared less about a character, who shifts randomly between emo depression and apathetic cool and never quite manages to hold on to the supposed utter terror or swelling bloodlust that he’s occasionally mentioned as having. the other characters can be summed up as cliches and are barely worth mentioning (dodgy crime boss, mad evil scientist, brainless lackey).

Third, awful plot and pacing. You know you’ve failed at pacing your story when the reader isn’t aware that they’ve reached the big climactic showdown. But the real travesty is the plot. I’m going to spoil it here, because you should really never read this book. Evil mad scientist turns people into zombies as an experiment for creating eternal life. Vampire PI sent to investigate, and teams up with terminally ill nubile young girl whose only chance to survive is (yes) to be turned into a vampire. Oh, and she happens to be psychic, with the ability to disable anyone with a mind blast, and has a dodgy relationship with male relatives (sexual abuse is sexy, apparently). Mad scientist captures her to create a zombie sex slave and goes “mwahaha!” a lot. Vampire dude rescues her by blowing shit up! With dynamite! And gasoline! Girl becomes mortally wounded and (you guessed it) he’s forced to turn her into a vamp. She runs away, but returns on the very last page, destroys his house, attacks his mind with her uber-powers, swears revenge on him, and then leaves. Just, well, because. I don’t think any further commentary is necessary.

A mediocre book gets one of these wrong. A bad book two. But a truly awful piece of paper-wasting drivel like Jailbait Zombie misses on every mark. The masochist in me kept reading, hoping for a spark of humour or cleverness. Not found. Avoid at all costs.

Ryu Murakami and the horror of the mundane

April 15, 2010

I’m not much of a horror fan, especially when it comes in book form. Inevitably, I’ll convince myself that a horror book is much less scary than a movie because there’s no soundtrack and nobody jumping out of closets at you, and I’ll sit down and read one. When I’m about a third of the way in, and invested in the story, I’ll remember why book-horror is so much worse. You have to participate actively in it. You can’t just sit back and absorb the audio-visual scares passively. Somehow, it feels like the act of reading is what makes the bad things happen in the first place. If I haven’t read a section, it hasn’t happened. The process of reading slowly brings the events into existence. I feel responsible.

Of course, Japanese horror is its own animal. I read The Ring and loved it, despite myself. Ryu Murakami’s Audition hit many of the same notes, but it had one unfortunate failing: the ending.

I’m a big fan of contemporary Japanese fiction, and a devout reader of Haruki Murakami. In fact, one of the reasons I adore David Mitchell is because his work is flavoured so distinctly by the time he spent in Japan. One of the most common tropes across all genres is the sheer drudgery and dullness of life. Characters are ordinary, live grey lives in indistinct places, muse passively about their existence but don’t do much to change anything. In Japanese horror, the fear is often closely linked to this mundane state – fear of vanishing, of being dragged down, of fading away, of depression. Subtlety is key.

Ryu Murakami does a masterful job of creating his bland-as-white-bread protagonist and putting him in a crazy whirlwind as he auditions for, and dates, his future wife. Foreshadowing is slathered on in spades. The creepiness rises steadily as the protagonist encounters his new girlfriend’s previous victims. I felt the dread increading with each page. At one point, I thought I’d reached the climax of the novel: the protagonist wakes up, alone, with a letter from the girlfriend promising vengeance for some unknown slight. His son is home, alone, hundreds of kilometres away. ‘No,’ I thought, with the shiver of certainty, ‘She wouldn’t!’

But then it turns out, she didn’t. The actual climax – filled with blood and guts and a screaming madwoman – was almost farcical. All the built-up dread melted away. The subtle, creeping horror was washed away in a wave of cheese and gore. If I’d stopped 20 pages earlier, I would have called the novel a supreme work of horror. Unfortunately I didn’t. It’s amazing how a whole book’s worth can be defined by the last handful of pages.

Overall it’s a good book (or rather, novella), filled with comedy and ridiculous moments and depth, as all good novels should be. I’ll definitely check out the film, too. In a way, I’m glad the end was so visceral and action-filled, because it pulled me out from the morass of dread that I was wallowing in. A good book for people who are ambivalent about horror.

Quirky Banks

March 25, 2010

It’s hard for me to nail down exactly what makes the works of Iain M Banks so quirky and magical for me. It certainly isn’t the originality of his plots and narratives – you’re pretty much guaranteed a war (or similar catastrophe) somewhere around the three-quarter mark, the main character is a poor schmuck who gets the increasingly shorter end of the stick, and the supporting cast members are wont to die unexpectedly (which, curiously, is expected).

Take Consider Phlebas, in which Bora Horza (whose race is fighting a war) is stuffed around by the powers that be as his friends and enemies drop like flies around him. Or Excession, where, under the looming threat of war, the characters (space ships mostly) get variously killed, pissed off or mistreated. In The Algebraist, which I have just finished reading, the layout is largely the same.

Another thing that is absolutely to be expected from a Banks novel is the usually supremely anticlimactic ending – like a 500-page-long, elaborate joke with a two-paragraph punchline, often revealing something obvious that would have prevented the past 500 pages from happening, had it been known earlier. The most wonderful thing here, though, is that the ending always comes as a surprise – if you think you’ve guessed the twist early on, then that won’t be the twist. The Algebraist’s ending wasn’t a complete surprise, unfortunately, and is – if anything – the least accomplished part of the book. The protagonist, Fassin, spends the entire narrative searching for hidden ancient information, but by the end (and I won’t spoil whether he finds it or not) nobody really cares. However, true to form, there’s a neat little sub-twist on the last page that feels very satisfying (though it’s almost entirely irrelevant to the story).

On the other hand, Banks has the amazing ability to completely surprise the reader with his wry humour. He describes a tense scene between characters in great detail, then casually reveals (near its end) that one of the characters is transforming himself into a walrus. Just because. The Dwellers – the many-billions-year-old race that lives on gas giants throughout the galaxy – easily steal the show in The Algebraist. They’re obnoxious, self-absorbed and pompous, they hunt their own children, make war for sport, are incorrigible tricksters and think little, if anything, of other alien races. Their supreme arrogance plays off their almost complete naivety beautifully. It’s hard to say much without spoiling the best jokes, but about half of the book, and much of Fassin’s wild goose chase around the galaxy, is precipitated by a Dweller.

Banks is an engaging writer who breathes some fresh air into the usually serious realm of speculative fiction. His superb worlds, races and characters are brought to life by his brilliantly crafted prose. I’d recommend you try at least one of his works, just for the sheer expereince of it.

Ebooks launch in SA. Meh.

March 11, 2010

I’m having very mixed feelings over the new Kalahari ebook store, launched two days ago. Though mixed implies good and bad, and I have only one definitively positive thought about this:

YAY! Finally, an ebook store with local purchase rights! The future is here! Glee!

Ahem. After the initial sense of astonishment and joy, my enthusiasm was tempered by the actual substance of the new ebook store. It provides slim pickings indeed. By some estimates, the store lists 60,000 books, and a paltry 2,000 of those are fiction. It’s not like they have to store the books on-site (their partner aggregator, Gardners, does that). And good luck trying to find any local material on there – not a single Alan Paton, Dalene Matthee or John van der Ruit to be seen.

Regardless of this lack of interesting material, there’s something far, far worse in evidence here – the prices! They’re astronomical! Maybe I’ve been conditioned by the media to expect my ebooks to cost less than $9,99. Maybe this is an unreasonable price point. Ebooks aren’t free to produce, after all: you have to pay for all the design, editing and marketing that goes into normal books, and server space and bandwidth are costly too. But come on – I’m not going to pay R295 (was R330) for the latest Faye Kellerman. The whole point of ebooks is that you can circumvent ultra-inflated first edition prices, not that you can sell a digital version for the same as the physical. Digital products are NOT exclusive, limited, unique, finite. It doesn’t cost more to publish a ‘first edition’ ebook. The very idea is preposterous.

The other prices are not much better. Aside from some super cheap, R20 romance novels and a handful of decent if obscure titles in the R60-R100 range (an entirely reasonable price point), fiction ebooks cost exactly the same as physical fiction book. Or more. Yes, more than a physical book that had to be printed, bound, shipped and stored in a warehouse. It’s not a very enticing prospect for a customer: buy an untested new technology, struggle to figure it out and read it on the PC screen, or just stick with the nice-and-safe comfort of a reliable format? it’s a no-brainer.

At least Kalahari made the effort to co-launch an ebook reader with the ebook store. Unfortunately, it’s the rather lackluster COOL-ER ereader. There’s nothing specifically wrong with it, but it doesn’t inspire much excitement either – no touch screen, no wi-fi, clunky controls and UI (by most accounts). Also, it’s a cool R2,600. The best thing about it is that it’s not locked into any particular format, online store or DRM, so you can import your current PDFs, ePubs and the like onto it. However, the small 6″ screen is unlikely to display PDFs very well, so I’d stick with reflowable ePubs wherever possible.

The presence of (and necessary download/registration with) Adobe Digital Editions hints at some pretty serious DRM, but there’s no mention of it anywhere to be found. This is another big failing on Kalahari’s part – ebook buyers are likely going to find out they can’t do what they like with their purchases only after the fact, once their money is safely in Kalahari’s bank account. And, of course, there’s no such thing as a return policy for digital goods.

Sure, I know that this is only early days and things may very well improve, but the initial launch is less than stellar and, in many ways, supremely disappointing. It’s not useful to say Kalahari are just testing the product, because they’re doing it completely wrong – a test store should be cheaper, cooler and more exciting than the final one, to entice potential customers to give it a shot. And they should actually tell people about it. The fact that the launch was so quiet and under the radar suggests either that they don’t really know what they’re doing or that they don’t trust the shoppers to get behind them. In that case, why even bother?

Book overload!

March 4, 2010

I’m currently swamped with dozens of recommendations for new books to read. That’s what happens then you ask the internet for advice.

I really love browsing book stores because I get a real sense of the bigger picture of the sections, something you just don’t get from an online bookseller. There’s something about having everything laid out in front of you (not to mention being able to pick up, page through and read in the books) that makes me love buying from brick-and-mortar shops – and which makes me allergic to browsing Kalahari’s opaque 10-per-page listings. However, this means that I was, quite consciously, bound to whatever the shops felt like displaying in their limited space, and also to what foreign publishers decided to send down our way. I’m confirming for myself that is latter category is pathetically small and absolutely unrepresentative – especially in the spec-fic genres.

I’ve recently started reading John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever. This guy seems to get through truckloads of books and singles out the best ones in his posts. Sometimes, when the books sound decent from the blurb, I’ll follow a few links and explore whether it’s something I’d like to check out. Chances are, it is, and from there it’s a simple search through an online vendor and the book’s in my basket. Also, I’ve signed up to Angry Robot Books’ Robot Army, which very kindly gives out (free!) advance review copies (ARCs) of their upcoming books if you promise to write them a review. It’s handy that they also have free sample chapters so you can check out what’s what before you commit. On top of this, I’ve come across several other online recommendations from disparate sources. There are at least a dozen book I just have to read, right away. (Pity I can’t just load them up to my nonexistent ereader.)

It’s a funny thing to read somebody’s opinion online and get the feeling that it’s a personal recommendation. It’s nothing like trawling through Amazon reviews, which are absolute bollocks – everybody gives their favourite book five stars and everything else one. The written reviews are either gushing-bordering-on-advertorial or ‘Meh. Was boring.” The reviews for Eat Pray Love (which I found to be atrocious) were almost verbatim copies of Oprah’s promo schtick. This sort of thing put me off listening to the internet for advice for a long time, but I’m happy to say that’s worn off in light of the new developments. So, I’m off to buy a lorry-load of books I’ve never seen or heard of before, based on what some so-called trusted sources have said. Good times!

For anyone who’s curious, here are some of the spiffy-looking books I’m thinking of getting. Here’s hoping the recommendations are reliable!

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