The Inheritance of Loss

If I wanted to give a habitual science fiction reader a novel that would reinforce all their prejudices about the world beyond the ghetto walls, I don’t think I could do much better than to give them a copy of The Inheritance of Loss. Kiran Desai’s second novel starts well enough: the first chapter, with its evocation of a mist-shrouded house in the northeastern Himalayas, builds a world (in exactly the way a good sf novel does, in fact) by carefully layering observation on incident. In the foreground is Sai, 17, reading National Geographic, musing on love and her affair with her maths tutor, Gyan; in the background are a judge and his cook, both stripped of names (except when we get access to their thoughts, later). It is the start of 1986, a few months before the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front organises a demonstration calling for a separate state (the region, we are told, “had always been a messy map”, 9); a few months before two years of disruption and violence. There is a symptom of the troubles to come: a gang of boys come to the house and steal the judge’s guns. The incident is troubling and tense.

A few days and two hundred pages later, a drunk is accused of the theft, arrested and beaten. In between and afterwards there is relatively little present-tense action; the focus is on a succession of elegantly interleaved flashbacks. This structure is actually the best thing about the book, although for Desai to highlight one character’s foolishness by having her express a preference for “Old-fashioned books […] Not the new kind of thing, no beginning, no middle, no end, just a thread of … free-floating plasma” (217) is perhaps a little too knowing for my taste. We dip in and out of the lives of the characters we’ve met, and a few more we come to know, and occasionally take a trip to America, where the cook’s son, Biju, is scrounging a living. For most of its length, this latter strand is extremely effective: every chapter in the novel is a collage of short scenes, most only a few paragraphs long, and the cut-and-paste effect suits the unsettled nature of Biju’s life. He’s squeezed from one to another New York kitchen, every kitchen equally grubby, equally detailed, and equally stuffed to the gills with migrant workers wrapped up in their own schemes and rivalries. Biju himself is consistently dazzled by the world — “How,” he wonders, “had he learned nothing growing up?” (22) — and his life is dismayingly credible; it certainly highlights, for example, the frictionless nature of a not-dissimilar migration in Hari Kunzru’s Transmission.

It’s back in the subcontinent, with the other characters, that the troubles with the novel set in. The beauty to which Desai’s prose aspires is a civilised beauty: long, languid sentences, gentle and descriptive. Sometimes it works; too often, to my mind, it feels overworked. Of Sai and Gyan’s courtship, which starts during tutorials, Desai writes, “how delicious the pretense of objective study, miraculous how it could eat up the hours.” Fine so far. But then: “as they eliminated the easily revealable and exhausted propriety, the unexamined portions of their anatomies exerted a more severely distilled potential” (125). This is, perhaps, an attempt to recast their courtship in the physical-science terms Gyan is teaching Sai, but it seems to me far too coy, far too self-aware to take seriously. Later, a character “traversed along flat main roads” (181): traversed? Really? Could he not, more specifically, walk or run or ride or drive? And earlier, a mother having bid her son farewell “was weeping because she had not estimated the imbalance between the finality of goodbye and the briefness of the last moment” (36): does that really get to the heart of a mother’s grief, or is it — as I can’t help thinking — just a long-winded way of stating the obvious? Worse still is some of the dialogue, notably some of the exchanges between Gyan and Sai. Here is one during a rumbling argument:

She yawned again, elaborately like a lion, letting it bloom forward. Then he did also, a meager yawn he tried to curb and swallow.
She did–
He did.
“Bored by physics?” she asked, encouraged by the apparent reconciliation.
“No. Not at all.”
“Why are you yawning then?”
Stunned silence. (163)

Stunned silence from Sai, at least; snickering from this reader, at such a spectacularly inept — and jarring, in context — depiction of late-teen sulkiness. To be fair, Gyan is not the only character who gets to speak in block capitals. Later on, for instance, we get this

WHAT ARE YOU SAYING????!!!” the judge yelled. (319)

He’s drunk, of course, and has every right to be angry, but I can’t help thinking that if a writer needs to resort to block capitals and italics and eleventy-one style punctuation to make that point clear then their actual words aren’t doing as much work as they should be. (Or at the very least, they don’t need to tell us that the person talking in block capitals and italics with eleventy-one style punctuation is yelling.)

Maybe I’m being too harsh: The Inheritance of Loss is a very inward-looking novel, with far more internal monologues and passages of description than exchanges of dialogue, which despite the rough patches mentioned above plays to Desai’s strengths. Here is Gyan falling in with the GNLF, just a few pages before the exchange of dialogue above:

As he floated through the market, Gyan had a feeling of history being wrought, its wheels churning under him, for the men were behaving as if they were being featured in a documentary of war, and Gyan could not help but look on the scene already from the angle of nostalgia, the position of a revolutionary. But then he was pulled out of the feeling, by the ancient and usual scene, the worried shopkeepers watching from their monsoon-stained grottos. Then he shouted along with the crowd, and the very mingling of his voice with largeness and lustiness seemed to create a relevancy, an affirmation he’d never felt before, and he was pulled back into the making of history. (157)

This, I think, does convey the tentative fervour of a youth desperate to live a life that signifies: Gyan floating, not walking (or traversing), torn between his longing and the immediacy of the real, that “lustiness” tellingly close to “an affirmation he’d never felt before”: good stuff. But it’s immediately followed by ruminations of a kind repeated by almost every character in the novel at one time or another, on the desire for and impossibility of escape, “free from family demands and the built-up debt of centuries.” Which leads to another reservation.

For the characters in The Inheritance of Loss, escape is impossible and misery is birthright. Sai’s parents — before they die — are filled with the same loneliness as their daughter; the son whose mother was bidding farewell earlier in this review botches his goodbye, and we learn that “Never again would he know love for a human being that wasn’t adulterated by another, contradictory emotion” (37). (The son grows up to be the judge, arranged into a loveless marriage that descends into rape and other abuses.) The cook is an old man with no fulfillment in his own life, desperate that his son do better than he did; this pressure is eventually Biju’s undoing. Sai’s tutor before Gyan is Noni, a spinster who “never had love at all” (68). And so on, for the entire cast. It’s an old story: “Certain moves made long ago,” we are told, “had produced all of them” (199). They are, if you like, variations on an absence of dignity: children, criminals, and buffoons. And too often that’s all they are — or at least the rest is hidden, the civilised sheen of Desai’s prose obscuring the extent of the violence done to their lives by circumstance.

It is not entirely surprising to me that the inhabitants of the real Kalimpong have objected to their counterparts’ portrayal in the book. The cast of The Inheritance of Loss are buffeted and bewildered by the world, with no initiative to speak of, nor (apparently) any capacity to learn; quite often they’re not even paying attention. Sai and Gyan completely miss “the important protest”, which is to say they miss the defining moment of the novel’s historical context. Whatever my reservations about the generosity with which a book like, say, Geoff Ryman’s The King’s Last Song treats its characters, it’s hard not to prefer such an approach to one that ultimately comes to feel capriciously mean. Desai tries her best to convince us that her characters are “just ordinary humans in ordinary opaque boiled-egg light, without grace, without revelation” (259), and that this justifies their fatalism. But the litany of misfortunes that make up the book’s final fifty pages verges on parody, manipulative in the extreme but too obviously controlled to really sting; imagine I ARE SERIOUS BOOK stamped on the cover and you’ll be thinking along the right lines.

It’s not that Desai scrupulously avoids offering an answer, or answers, to the problems of global inequality that gives me trouble — to do otherwise would arguably be presumptuous, and she mines good material from her stance, such as one character’s painful realisation that he can only live a Western life by cutting off his countrymen, “or they would show up reproachful, pointing out to him the lie that he had become” (306). But The Inheritance of Loss denies even the possibility of meaningful change. Over and above the inconsistent loquaciousness of the prose, the near-absence of narrative drive, and the passivity of the characters (a consequence, I can’t help thinking, of the book’s ideologicial fixedness), this is what I expect would stick in most sf readers’ craws. And rightly. Sai’s ultimate epiphany — “The simplicity of what she’d been taught wouldn’t hold. Never again could she think there was but one narrative and that this narrative belonged only to herself” (323) — is pitifully empty, not just because any half-awake reader will have got there at least a couple of hundred pages earlier, if not before they ever open the book, but because Desai has so thoroughly drummed home that there’s nothing Sai can do to change her fate. All Sai’s achieved is to wake up to the same awareness that the rest of the book’s characters have been struggling with: her life does not belong to herself, because the West distorts and robs all those who come into contact with it, now and forever: the end.

Nebula Award Winners

From Locus Online:

Seeker by Jack McDevitt (Ace)

Burn by James Patrick Kelly (Tachyon)

Two Hearts” by Peter S. Beagle (F&SF)

Short Story
Echo” by Elizabeth Hand (F&SF)

Howl’s Moving Castle, Hayao Miyazaki, Cindy Davis Hewitt, and Donald H. Hewitt

Andre Norton Award
Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier (Razorbill)

Eh. Admittedly the ballot wasn’t the most inspiring thing in the world to start with, but I find myself distinctly unexcited about this set of results — with the exception of “Echo”, which I liked. I’m ambivalent about “Two Hearts” and “Burn”; and I’ll probably check out Seeker now, although nothing I’ve read about the book makes it sound particularly special. Opinions from the floor?


As I mentioned in my post a couple of days ago, after the performance I was told that the end of the stage version of A Matter of Life and Death varies nightly. The script that I’d ordered arrived today, and the first thing I did was to look at how the ending was written. As it turns out, it’s different again from the version I saw, probably explained by the “Note on the text” at the start of the play:

This is the text of a devised show. We began with the screenplay of the original film. Some scenes were rewritten and taken into workshops at the National Studio where they were re-improvised and rewritten again. A new draft was taken into rehearsal, where many scenes were once again rewritten in response to the work of the acting and design company. Although some dialogue has been placed in square brackets to indicate that it is optional, this text is probably quite close to what will be spoken during the show’s run at the National Theatre, but even then it will be subject to continual evolution and change and the occasional inspired improvisation on a nightly basis.

So here are the last few pages of the script. Note that one of the differences with the film that I didn’t mention in my writeup is that June is transported fully to the courtroom.

WOMAN [of Coventry]: Don’t you think they should let some of us go back instead of you? A few of us? One of us? Rather than let you go back so you can enjoy falling in love?

PETER: What?

WOMAN: If the rules are to be broken, why shouldn’t they be broken for us?

PETER: You’re right. Some of them should go back.

Can’t be helped about the parachute. I’ll have my wings soon, anyway, big white ones. Bob? So long Bob. I’ll see you. I’ll see you.

PETER jumps

JUNE’S VOICE: Hello G for George. Hello, G George. Hello, G George.

DOC [REEVES]: Stop! We have to do something. His condition’s critical.

SHAKESPEARE: He is dying. That is all.

JUNE: Peter! I love you, Peter. You’re life and I’m leaving you.

SHAKESPEARE: But don’t think that his love will die with him. His love and this story will live to be told again long after he is dead. It is already the perfect love story.

FATHER: Welcome home. You will soon be at peace.

DOC: Peter. Peter. Don’t listen to them.

JUNE bursts into the court room.

JUNE: Enough! A life for a life. I’ll take his place and you can send him back! Take me not him! Take me not him!

She mounts the escalator and starts climbing.

PETER: Stop. Stop her!

He tries to follow.

JUDGE: Restrain him!

JUNE: You’re safe! You’re safe, Peter.

JUDGE: Stop everything!

Everything stops except JUNE running. She collapses. The escalator carries her down and slows to a halt. She is delivered at the feet of the JUDGE. PETER escapes from his restrainers and goes to her. In their unity they are oblivious of the Court.

Now. How does the Court find?

The RECORDER consults with the CHORUS.

RECORDER: For the defendant, your Honour.

Love cannot mend the horrors of the war we’ve fought. But if we are ever to recover our human dignity, then everyone who survives must find a still place in their heart where a new and simple love can grow. This man and this woman have found that already.

JUDGE: Very well.

He writes a new date on the term of life and shows it to the DOC.

Does this seem fair to you gentlemen?

DOC: Ample.

Goodbye Peter. Good luck. Goodbye June.

[FATHER: Goodbye Peter. I wish you the best in love and life. I will wait for you here.]

CONDUCTOR: Goodbye Peter. I’ll get you in the end.

Magically PETER is back in the hospital, JUNE is at his bedside. Enter DR McEWEN and MR ARCHER.

McEWEN: How is he? Were we in time?

ARCHER: His chances are about even.

The BOY takes a coin out of his pocket and flips it in the air.


The room is a normal hospital with busy NURSES and AIRMEN recuperating. They are talking and laughing. A new emergency arrives and the medical staff immediately swing into action: saving lives is commonplace.

PETER: I won my case.

JUNE: I know.


The room is a normal hospital with busy NURSES and AIRMEN recuperating. They are talking and laughing. JUNE is sitting beside PETER’s body. He is dead.

JUNE: Peter. Peter. Peter. Peter. Peter.

ARCHER: I’m sorry. We did everything we could.


Some notes:

1. Reading this through again, Dr A’s Life on Mars comparison makes even more sense; the confusion of real-world medical emergency and other-world metaphysical crisis is much more intense than it is in the film, and very reminiscent of that series.

2. I have no idea why the script refers to Frank Reeves as “Doc”.

3. June climbing the escalator was different in the version I saw; on Wednesday, she climbed up the stand by the judge, and he told her that she’d proved her love for Peter.

4. I am pretty sure, although not absolutely certain, that the court recorder’s final speech is different. I remember the line about finding a new place where love can grow, but I don’t think he declares a verdict, and I distinctly remember lines about how any finding must take into account the essential randomness of life and death in wartime. I’m not sure if those were delivered by the recorder or by another character. Then there was the coin toss — although, as I say, we were told that on a previous night it had gone to an audience vote.

5. Otherwise, the ending is as abrupt as I remember.

The Inheritance of Links

A Conversation About 28 Weeks Later

The following discussion was recorded after going to Sci-Fi London’s screening of 28 Weeks Later last Sunday. If you haven’t seen the film, I’d suggest proceeding with caution, not so much because there are spoilers — though there are — as because our ramblings aren’t likely to make much sense. If you want actual reviews, here’s the New York Times (liked it) and here’s The Guardian (not so much). Otherwise, enjoy!

Graham: Welcome to this week’s installment of The Third Row Discuss, featuring —

Tom: Theme music!

Ian: Zombies! Arrrrgh.

Graham: — we have just been to see 28 Weeks Later at the Sci-Fi London film festival, my name’s Niall Harrison —

Tom: It’s Sunday the 6th of May, 21:36, Officer Harrison presiding.

Graham: So. It was about zombies!

Ian: It was about zombies.

Tom: But was it really about zombies?

Ian: Yes.

Tom: No.

Ruth: No, it was about people fucking up.

Ian: OK, it was about the military.

Tom: It was about the American military fucking up. And therefore it was about zombies!

Graham: Although for most of the film, the American military intervention was depicted as a positive thing.

Ian: Yes — they were doing their damn best to fix the problem, to fix the infrastructure and set everyone up on the Isle of Dogs. And then they fucked up.

Graham: I’m just thinking: could there possibly be an Iraq metaphor here?

Ian: I think the issue is that it wasn’t the military intervention that was the problem, it was the civilian imperatives that caused the problem — the military weren’t able to cope with the problem because of the civilian requirements. That was the major issue.

Tom: Was it? Surely the problem was that the military response was stupid.

Graham: Or at least disproportionate.

Ian: They brought too many civilians back too early.

Tom: And centralised them, yeah. And did it in a city. Which is quite a difficult place to control.

Niall: But looked quite cool. Which I think is possibly not to be underestimated when considering the development of this film.

Tom: If the whole thing was set near Stanstead Airport — which would be a really sensible place to house refugees — it wouldn’t have looked nearly so cool.

Graham: They were going for all the London landmarks that Russell T. Davies hadn’t yet trashed. (And by the way, I’d like a bet on that Wembley Stadium will have appeared in Doctor Who before the year is out.)

Tom: So can I just check — when did 28 Days Later come out? [2002 — Ed.] Because Wembley Stadium wasn’t finished when it came out. So how did it get finished in the meantime? Zombie builders?

Niall: OK, step back. Was the film GOOD or BAD?

Ian: Good.

Ruth: Good.

Graham: Good, within the bounds of its genre.

Tom: Yeah.

Niall: Yeah, I would have quite happily watched the film about rebuilding the UK after the events of 28 Days Later that didn’t turn into another zombie film, but that wasn’t the film they wanted to make.

Tom: I would too.

Ian: I was hoping that there weren’t going to be any zombies in it.

Graham: But it’s like expecting Sunshine not to suddenly pick off the crew one by one.

Niall: Well, not quite, because I was expecting this to turn into a zombie film, whereas I wasn’t expecting Sunshine to turn into a slasher film.

Ian: That is possibly why it would have been awesome if it hadn’t. It would have been great if we as the audience were expecting at every turn zombies to pop up … and they just didn’t.

Ruth: I like the way at the start, you see the attack on the farmhouse and you think that’s already the 28 weeks later.

Niall: The start did a really good job of reminding us that fast zombies are fucking terrifying.

Ruth: Yes. Although in this they could come out in daylight, and I’m pretty sure in the original they could only come out at night.

Tom: Wasn’t it vice versa? They hid during the day and only went out at night?

Ruth: Are you sure?

Tom: No.

Graham: It’s perfectly plausible for the zombies to have evolved —

Tom: Well …

Graham: — given the film’s approach to genetics, which Tom is about to expand on.

Tom: No, I don’t think there’s any point going over the film’s technical flaws. Because it’s a blockbuster, it has lots of them, and you just have to live with them.

Ian: Well, about the people not succumbing to the symptoms for whatever reason — that happens. People can be carriers, is the basic idea.

Tom: So the dad — Don — why was he infected and chasing them? Why was he different to a normal zombie?

Graham: Because he’s played by a lead actor.

Ian: He wasn’t that different to a normal zombie, he just happened to be following them and was particularly successful at doing so.

Tom: But not at very high speed. And didn’t seem to close in for the kill.

Graham: On another note — Doyle, the soldier, I kept thinking all the way through, “This is a Nathan Fillion part”. You know, non-nonsense, gruff, conscience …

Tom: I see what you mean. He talked a bit like him, too.

[And I’ve just remembered where I’ve seen him before: he’s Jeremy Renner, aka Penn — Ed.]

Niall: A thought: are there any zombie films that are not idiot plots? I was thinking about this, because clearly, for the plot of this film to happen there needs to be a lot of idiocy. But it’s plausible idiocy — idiocy of sentimentality, when Robert Carlyle goes to visit his wife after they find her, idiocy of military overreaction contributing to the situation getting out of hand.

Tom: Yes, both those are horribly plausible.

Graham: And idiocy of not figuring out that Robert Carlyle has an ID card that lets him in to see his wife.

Tom: Well, hang on, the idiocy is that his access all areas maintenance pass gets him into the most serious biohazard areas in the base. Which don’t have guards, incidentally. And aren’t covered by CCTV.

Ian: Basic rule: never kiss tongues with a zombie. Or with someone who might be a zombie.

Niall: What was going on with the helicopter in Regent’s Park ploughing through those zombies?

Tom: Reinforced blades, perhaps?

Ian: Yeah, I don’t really think that would work.

Ruth: Obviously it’s a secret military helicopter that has special technology.

Tom: Also, the distances were slightly annoying. They’re in the Isle of Dogs, and then they escape, and — they get picked up in Regent’s Park? Because it’s … the nearest large open space? So Mile End park, Victoria Park, City Airport itself … they’re no good?

Graham: Nah, Jubilee line to Baker Street and you can walk from there.

Tom: And then the guy says — can’t pick you up in Regent’s Park any more, for some reason I’m not clear on, so you’ll have to go to Wembley! Because that’s nice and close.

Ian: They were going for landmarks.

Tom: But it would have been so easy to do that without getting them wrong. But you’re right, complaining about that is like complaining about the helicopter blades or …

Graham: So, why did they make this film? What elemental truth were they trying to show us?

Tom: If you make a zombie film, people will go and see it and pay money to do so.

Ian: Yes.

Ruth: Maybe they wanted to answer the question about what happened to the rest of the world, which was left hanging.

Niall: How did the first film end? I can’t remember.

Ian: They were in a field with a banner, and we saw aircraft flying over.

Tom: And you can hear radio chatter from the plane and it’s in Finnish. Or so I read on Wikipedia.

Ian: And we saw all the zombies dying of starvation.

Ruth: So you knew that people survived outside the UK.

Ian: They were falling over in the streets, like “rrrgh! Urrk!”

Graham: That’s not going to come over well on the transcript. But thank you.

Ian: [Closer to the microphone]: AAAARGK! RRRAGH! UAARRK!

Niall: At this point we need a third militarised-dystopian-Britain film, to make a trilogy with this and Children of Men.

Tom: I was getting some Children of Men vibes — in particular, save the children because they have the genetic potential to save humanity, and the firebombing of the refugees. So we need a third film with bombing of refugees.

Ruth: Well, I’ll look forward to that …

Ian: This didn’t have the feelgood happy ending of Children of Men, though.

Graham: Can we have the invasion of Britain film that is a rom-com?

Ian: No.

Niall: Why would we want to watch that?

Graham: You know, another rom-zom-com. Zombies find love amidst the ruins.

Tom: Or possibly a romantic comedy about the English civil war — a rom-crom-com.

Niall: Presumably 28 Months Later

Tom: — and then 28 years later, 28 decades later … 28 kalpas later, the Stephen Baxter far-future installment!

Ian: 28 Months Later will presumably have mainland Europe, Africa and Asia are all destroyed by zombies, and America’s still strong!

Graham: But Australia would be isolated, so it would be a rom-pom-com.

Tom: I hate you so much. But you could probably contain the zombies in Europe. You could protect Africa because all you have to do is hold the Suez canal and Gibraltar.

Graham: If we want stories about the spread of a global epidemic, Blood Music by Greg Bear is a really good example.

Tom: Although not quite the same situation.

Ian: I suppose Twelve Monkeys is somewhat similar.

Tom: Twelve Monkeys Later?

Ruth: That would be the next one.

Graham: Visually, the thing that sits with me isn’t so much the zombies, but just that once in a while you see the figure silhouetted in the distance, and it’s Robert Carlyle in zombie state.

Ian: I think they possibly overused the fact that he was extra-terrifying because he was, like, their dad, but I’ll forgive them for it.

Niall: There was also a lot of use of sniper-scopes and similar, which was very effective.

Ian: The scene going down into the underground was terrifying.

Ruth: It was.

Graham: I got a bit bored of that — it seemed to me to be going on too long. We knew damn well they were going to get down there.

Tom: That sniper-scope thing … have you seen that in films before? It’s an active infra-red scope, which looks very different to a light intensifier, because you have those glowing eyes.

Graham: Climax of The Silence of the Lambs?

Ruth: Yes, she has those reflecting eyes.

Tom: Because the only other place I’ve heard of it recently is on a Paris Hilton sex tape. Which has the eyes. I haven’t actually seen this, but I heard that it was done.

Graham: M’lud.

Tom: Let the record show. It’s just funny … apparently, I read, it’s now a big trend in gonzo porn, to use active infra-red.

Graham: Can we steer the topic away from gonzo porn and towards the happier subject of zombies killing everyone? Actually, the other very specific reference I felt was when they’re heading into the safe zone on the DLR at the start of the film, with the voice telling them everything will be OK — it’s the opening sequence of Half-Life.

Niall: I did like seeing the DLR used as a refugee train. I mean, it’s another London shout-out, but it was a nice touch.

Tom: Because the DLR is run by computers, so it’s almost the one thing you could easily get running if you didn’t have humans.

[At this point, we paused to consume food. There was further discussion, but alas, it was not recorded. We attempted to summarise the important points.]

Ian: So, what we were saying? Zombie movies, subgenre of survival horror, humans are stupid. There you go.

Niall: Humans vs. undifferentiated mass, weak link, and so on.

Tom: There is always a dopey bird who does something stupid for her boyfriend. Except sometimes it’s a man. In the remake of Day of the Dead, there’s the man who’s keeping his zombie wife alive — he’s the equivalent. But I do think they tend to exploit female sentimentality very often.

Niall: Did anyone know anything about the film going in, in terms of the structure? Because — like you said, Ruth, I thought it was already 28 weeks later, and then everyone fucking died. Apart from Robert Carlyle. But even the kid! I wasn’t expecting them all to die so quickly.

Tom: Although the clues were there, because they were clearly still worried about zombies — at first I thought it was just Robert Carlyle and his wife, going through the cupboards of this house, trying to survive. Which I’m sure was intentional.

Ian: Yes, especially since the zombies died at the end of 28 Days Later.

Niall: But it does build up to that moment where they open the door and it’s bright light outside, when you’d thought it was night. I think in the end the film goes into the roll of “sequels that are worth seeing but are obviously not as good as the originals.” Because it did find some new ways to do abandoned Britain shots, but a lot of it was repetition. The Regent’s Park carousel was a nice image, for instance.

Graham: Except not in Regent’s Park. Clearly in a field in the middle of Berkshire.

Niall: That’s because they can’t actually let Regent’s Park run wild for six months.

Ian: There were a lot of shots of “oh my god, it’s London! And it’s empty! Again!” But that is cool.

Ruth: They weren’t as effective as in the first one.

Ian: But the start of 28 Days Later was so awesome, they couldn’t replicate that. Although firebombing the Isle of Dogs was quite good.

Niall: The use of aerial shots was quite good because it built up to the firebombing. You’d have these flat overhead shots, and we’ve seen those in lots of films —

Graham: — and Torchwood!

Niall: — and then they used the same shots for the firebombing of the Isle of Dogs, which I thought was really effective.

Ruth: It also reminded me of The Apprentice

Tom: In terms of imagery … I think this is similar to what Philip Pullman said about the way he writes books, when he came to talk to OUSFG many years ago. He doesn’t start with a plot, he starts with a series of images he likes and then figures out how to link them together. And that’s exactly what this film was, which is why it makes no sense at all.

Ian: “Should have put that in the original film — oh well, I’ll put it in a flashback.”

A Matter of Life and Death

Here are two stories:

Boy meets girl. Boy is fated to die, but a mistake is made, and he lives. Boy and girl fall in love. The next world sends a conductor to collect boy’s soul: boy appeals the decision. A trial is arranged, and held, with boy’s life in the balance. Boy and girl demonstrate their love for one another. Boy wins his appeal — love is greater than law. Boy and girl live happily ever after.

Alternatively: boy meets girl. Boy miraculously survives a leap from a burning plane without a parachute. Boy and girl fall in love, but boy has suffered serious brain damage. An operation is arranged, and held, with boy’s life in the balance. The operation is a success — boy’s belief in love gives him the strength to fight through. Boy and girl live happily ever after.

The original version of A Matter of Life and Death — the wonderful 1946 film written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, starring David Niven as boy (Squadron Leader Peter Carter) and Kim Hunter as girl (American radio operator June) — could have been either story, and was in fact both. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy describes it as a “rationalised fantasy”, which is exactly what it sounds like, and indeed an opening title stakes a claim for reality: “this is the story of two worlds, the one we know and another which exists only in the mind … of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war.” But the screenplay never confirms this statement, and in fact puts some effort into maintaining ambiguity as to what is real and what is not. There are multiple scenes set in the “other world” (to all intents and purposes, heaven) which Peter is not in, and which he displays no knowledge of, and which therefore suggest that the other world exists independently of his mind. And in one of the scenes where the Conductor visits Peter, freezing time for everyone else while they talk, he knocks over a stack of books, then puts them back in place while Peter is out of the room. After the visit, Peter expects the books to be on the floor: that they are not acts as confirmation to June, and to Frank Reeves, the doctor in charge of Peter’s case, that Peter is hallucinating, but we cannot take the same certainty.

The new stage adaptation at the National Theatre (adaptation by Tom Morris and Emma Rice, directed by Emma Rice) keeps the same basic structure, but there are many changes; the fact that it provides an answer about the nature of the other world is just one difference. Although there are gestures in the direction of ambiguity (as in the film, for instance, the judge at Peter’s trial and the surgeon operating on him are played by the same actor), the stage version of A Matter of Life and Death is unambiguously a fantasy. In the equivalent visit to the one I described above, for instance, the Conductor knocks over no books, but at the end of the scene Peter sees the spirit of a man who recently died at the local hospital, without having been told of the death. June and Frank note, and briefly discuss, the impossibility. Even more telling is the fact that, while Reeve dies in a motorcycle crash and serves as Peter’s advocate in the celestial courtroom showdown in both versions, only in the film is Peter told of the accident: in the stage version, Reeve just turns up in heaven.

The reason for the change takes a while to come clear. In the meantime, the production is largely engaging: the leads, Tristan Sturrock and Lyndsey Marshal, give solid performances (and Sturrock arguably has an advantage over Niven in that he looks the right age), and have a slightly more modern relationship to work with. Peter and June’s first date is notably less chaste than its film equivalent, and she accepts rather than declines a drink; when asked how the chess game they’re playing is going, June says “Peter’s very good”, and Peter adds, “but June’s winning”, whereas in the film it’s the other way around; and towards the end of the story, June demonstrates the strength of her love for Peter by volunteering to take his place in death (a life for a life) off her own bat, rather than responding to a suggestion by Reeves. While the film is and remains deeply moving, the relationship in the play seems more immediate, more passionate. Other apects are less convincing. As the Conductor, Gisli Orn Gardarsson can’t match the peerless delivery of Marius Gorling; plus, in this version the Conductor is a Norwegian magician rather than a French aristocrat, and some of the lines (“your British weather!”) sound awkward. He comes across as a broad-brush clown. There’s an occasional lack of nuance elsewhere, too — when discussing faith, for instance, in the film June says she doesn’t really know, she hasn’t thought about it, which sets up a wonderful line from Reeves: “I don’t know, I’ve thought about it too much.” In the play, the positions of the three cast members are much clearer-cut (Peter believes, June is atheist, Reeves is agnostic), and the line is gone. And there are a few changes that are baffling in their triviality. In the film, Peter smells fried onions when the Conductor visits (further evidence, for Reeve, that the visits are hallucinations); in the play, he smells burnt toast.

Rice keeps the stage busy — just occasionally, as in the opening descriptions of the awesome immensity of the universe, perhaps a little too busy — and is occasionally inspired. Reeves, for instance, has a camera obscura which he uses to survey the village where he lives (“a village doctor must know everything; you’d be surprised how many diagnoses I’ve made from up here”). In the play, this shows the landscape around the National Theatre — the South Bank and Waterloo Bridge — complete with incongruous country village locals going about their business. Later, a game of table-tennis escalates, thanks to lifts from various members of the cast, into a virtuoso bullet-time (ping-pong-time?) extravaganza — less absurdist than this, but along the same lines. The musical scene-changes are unexpected, and sometimes feel like padding (the play is a good twenty minutes longer than the film), but also add emotional weight to a number of minor characters, such as the aforementioned dead guy seen by Peter, who gets his own solo. Music is also used to mark the transition between this world and the other: an adequate substitute for, if hardly as striking as, the film’s shift from technicolour to black and white.

The heart of the play, as with the film, is in the courtroom, yet it’s here that the changes are most radical. Part of the original impetus for A Matter of Life and Death was paranoia about potential cracks in the Anglo-American alliance: so June is American, and the prosecutor in Peter’s case is the rabidly anti-British Abraham Farlan, the first man to be killed by a British bullet in the American War of Independence. Consequently, the first part of the appeal, in which Farlan attempts to invalidate Peter’s case purely on grounds of nationality, comes across to a modern viewer — or at least to me — as an unnecessarily lengthy digression, perhaps the one duff moment in the film. Eventually, the real issue is raised, the court descends to Earth, Peter and June (summoned by the Conductor while sleeping) prove their love for one another, and Peter is granted his life. (Or, if you prefer, the surgery is a success.) In the play, by contrast, June is British and Farlan is nowhere to be seen. In his place there are two prosecutors: Peter’s father, who died in the first world war, and William Shakespeare.

The effect of this, if you’re charitable, is to considerably broaden the scope of the debate: it is no longer enough to simply establish that Peter and June love each other, it has to be established that they deserve each other. The film, you could say, was about love among the Allies; in the play, there’s a place in heaven for soldiers on all sides of the war (and of past wars), and it becomes a story about the costs of being a soldier. Peter’s father argues that death is what gives Peter’s life as a soldier meaning, that it will be inspirational, that to die is (in effect) to continue his camaraderie with the men he fought alongside. The most powerful moment in the entire production comes when the prosecution calls to the stand a woman killed in the bombing of Coventry. Why, she asks simply, should the rules be broken for Peter? No answer is offered, because none can be. On the other hand, if you’re less charitable, the change in focus leads to a muddle. There isn’t the clear back-and-forth that there is in the film; instead there are a series of more-or-less effective separate arguments (Shakespeare’s are among the less effective, if you were wondering; in fact, his impact on the trial is strangely cursory). The coup-de-grace comes when an unnamed man steps forward and insists that any judgement must take into account the inherent unfairness of war. They decide to toss a coin to decide Peter’s fate, and he dies, turning the ending from an affirmation of the power of love into a bitter reminder that fate is arbitrary and cruel. It’s an ending that forces the viewer to confront the assumptions they have brought to the story — particularly if said viewer has seen the film; an original play that told the same story would probably not be so discomforting.

The work that came to mind immediately after watching the play was Mary Doria Russell’s novel A Thread of Grace — another World War II story, about which Russell has said that she really did toss a coin to decide which of her characters lived and who died. Rice and Morris, it turns out, have taken the concept a step further, in a way that can only be achieved with a stage production: the outcome changes every night. (And, I was told, it’s not always a coin toss; apparently, the night before we saw the play they asked the audience, in their role as the watching host of heaven, to decide, and they chose to let Peter live.) It’s a compelling choice, and I think explains why the play is so much more clearly framed as a fantasy than the film: it has to be, to give the voices of the dead their due moral force, to prevent them from being dismissed as belated pangs of Peter’s conscience, or complications on the operating table. Almost paradoxically, the change reduces the importance of Peter’s operation — the feeling that his fate lies on the operating table is far weaker in the play — yet makes the story more real. But at the same time, it’s hard not to feel that something has been lost. A friend described the film as “innocent without being naive”, which I think is right: it manages to do an almost miraculous thing, dramatise the life-saving potential of love without feeling as though it’s cheating. Rice and Morris’ play is, if you like, more honest about the nature of life and death, and worth seeing for that; but the innocence is gone.

Sci-Fi London

This past weekend was the sixth Sci-Fi London film festival; I didn’t go to as many films as usual, primarily because I don’t think the programme was as interesting as it has sometimes been. (Which is to say there was no Primer this year.) Still, not a wasted weekend: on Friday, Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex — Solid State Society looked and sounded fabulous, even if, having not seen any other Ghost in the Shell ever, I had very little idea what was going on. On Saturday, The Mars Underground was, as expected, pure Mars-porn, and left me wanting to read Voyage and the Mars trilogy again. And on Sunday, the shorts programme was, as ever, a mixed bag — my favourites were “Victor Y La Maquina”, which was funny and touching and stylish, and “Coming to Town”, which starts out Wrong and gets Wronger (you can watch it here) — while 28 Weeks Later is, on balance, worth seeing, although inevitably suffers somewhat from diminishing returns syndrome. (Those of us who went to see the latter had a post-film discussion that with any luck I managed to record; I’ll try to sort out a transcript by the end of the week.) Also on Sunday, of course, was the quiz, where the oh-so-modestly named Team Awesome managed to trounce all comers, most importantly the SFX posse. (More accurately, perhaps, Graham and Paul answered most of the questions, and the rest of us ate muffins.) Magnanimous lot that we are, though, we invited them to join us in St James’ park to drink through the drinkable part of our winnings (a crate of the ubiquitous Cobra Beer), and proceeded to geek about Heroes, Drive, and other such things.

What’s next? Everything I haven’t had the mental energy to tackle over the past few weeks, plus a couple of other things. (It’s amazing — or perhaps not — how comprehensively the Clarke had been dominating my thoughts.) I need to get some of the content from V251 up onto the website (any requests?); I need to work on a piece for Scalpel; I need to plan Wiscon and related antics (including the vital questions: do I attempt karaoke, and if so what do I sing?); I’m going to see A Matter of Life and Death on Wednesday, and have the film to watch at some point as well. Oh yes: and to celebrate having decided one award, I’m immediately going to try to read the shortlist for another, which may or may not lead to reviews. Have I missed anything?

Now All Clarke Until The End

Matrix interviews the shortlisted authors
Liz runs a poll
Reactions to omissions from the shortlist

End of the World Blues by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Nova Swing by M. John Harrison

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet

Hav by Jan Morris

Gradisil by Adam Roberts

Streaking by Brian Stableford

And the winner: Nova Swing

Compare and Contrast

Alastair Reynolds interviewed by the BBC:

“The common complaint now is that science fiction is already outmoded because we are living in a science fiction universe,” says Mr Reynolds. “I’ve got some sympathy with that. Only the other day I was in Amsterdam airport and I noticed security guards nipping around on Segways with machine guns.

“If you had been transported from 1997 into this year, you would be incredulous and think of it as science fiction.

“But we accept it as part of the fabric of our world.”

Mr Reynolds believes that the pace of change makes science fiction essential reading, now more than ever.

“Society has probably always felt this way. To some extent this is when science fiction should thrive – when the world is changing at a bewildering pace.


He also draws on the rich heritage of real science in fiction established by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, two of his favourite childhood authors.

“I am playing in a playground that’s already been played in. I am always aware that a lot of the furniture in science fiction is second hand.”

Francine Prose reviewing The Pesthouse:

Crace can write amazingly well, as he did in “Being Dead.” When he’s on, as he often is here, the results are stellar. But that highway across the ravaged future has been traversed so frequently that keeping us on course requires a level of invention as high as the one that gives the Finger Baptists their eerie fascination. We’ve witnessed too many scenes in which our de-evolved descendants puzzle out the use of some low-tech archaeological relic — here, a pair of binoculars. And we’re too easily distracted by minor plot holes and slight tears in the web of illusion. I stalled each time characters acted counterintuitively in a world where survival depends on instinct, and again when I’d wonder why American primitives should sound like refugees from a Thomas Hardy novel.

My mother-in-law, who was a fountain of folk wisdom, used to say that World War III would be fought with sticks and stones. When she said it, I believed her. But it wasn’t like reading Dante. You can’t help wanting more from art, and from Jim Crace. You can’t help wanting something new, something beyond an inspired melding of science fiction and the horrors we ourselves dream up in the dead of night. It’s disorienting and a little dispiriting — like some sort of odd déjà vu — to read about the hell of the future and feel that we’ve been there before.

Jo Walton on mundane sf:

SF is becoming the work of the third artist. The first artist goes out and paints from life. The second artist copies the first artist. The third artist copies the second artist. (I’ve usually seen this analogy applies to fantasy, with Tolkien as the first artist.) The first artist put things in because there were there, or in the case of SF, because they were new cool speculation. The second artist put them in because they were trying to get close to the first. The third artist put them in because heck, that’s what you put in. By the time you get to the third artist, using things like FTL and uploading yourself and aliens isn’t speculating or asking “what if”, it’s playing with furniture in a doll’s house. Going back to where we actually are and starting again, with the techniques but not the tropes of the genre, is trying to become a new first artist.

I’m sure that’s what Geoff Ryman meant, and what that manifesto meant, and it makes sense even if you don’t agree.

There’s nothing wrong with entertainment for its own sake. But SF used to be something that made people think, rather than something comforting and familiar. Is SF becoming a genre in the way fantasy and mystery and romance are, where what you’re getting is a variation on a theme? Kathy Morrow says for most people, most reading is comfort reading. I don’t know if that’s true, but it seems to me that the first reading of any SF novel isn’t — shouldn’t be — a comfort read. (Re-reading is different.)