Saturday, 20 June 2009

Book Review: Litany of the Long Sun: The First Half of The Book of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe's four volume The Book of the New Sun, an epic dying earth tale of the distant future, is one of the literary accomplishments of science fiction and fantasy. It's also an all-time favourite of mine although I've not read much of Gene Wolfe's work. I was impressed with The Fifth Head of Cerberus and Peace, but these did not have the same type of impact on my imagination as the above and maybe helps explain why I did not attempt any more Gene Wolfe novels until now. Like The Book of the New Sun , The Book of the Long Sun is a huge novel split into four volumes. The book I'm reviewing is an omnibus edition comprising the first two novels: Nightside the Long Sun and Lake of the Long Sun and attracted by the beautiful front cover illustration, obviously influenced by 19th Century Symbolism, I decided to commit myself once more to the author's brand of complex science fiction with an overlaying of fantasy.

There are similarities with Book of the New Sun but also differences. Both are about entropic worlds-here a generation starship called The Whorl, an artificial planet travelling through space, containing a medieval society scattered with left over technology, its origin and history forgotten. Litany of the Long Sun, though not having the vast canvas nor quite the singular invention of Wolfe's masterpiece, still offers the reader a detailed scientifically plausible, but unusual environment, especially appealing to science fiction fans. He uses the tropes of the genre-robots, gods who are not what they seem, even a light sabre-in a story that combines a large dose of adventure, complex political intrigue, and spiritual speculation.

The central character, Patera Silk, like Severian in Book of the New Sun, a member of a tightly knit group of professionals-the priesthood of a pagan religion (almost the mirror opposite of Severian's guild of torturers), becomes unwittingly embroiled with power politics and espionage, uncovering the realities of the Whorl and his beloved gods. The people who populate Litany of the Long Sun are varied, exotic but real to life and although the plot is dense with complexities it keeps you reading as it slowly reveals what's under the surface.

Of course I have two more novels to go (contained in the Epiphany of the Long Sun omnibus) before the story ends, but it's shaping up to be, if not as exceptionally imaginative as Book of the New Sun, an engrossing read, full of surprises and vivid images.

I will continue to read Gene Wolfe's prolific output in the years to come.

For those who would like to delve further into the world of Gene Wolfe have a look at Ultan's Library-a resource for the study of Gene Wolfe.

Friday, 12 June 2009

DVD from my Collection: Spirited Away, A Film by Hayao Miyazaki

In my humble opinion the greatest fantasy film of all time, even comparable in its imagination and originality to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. What makes Spirited Away a masterpiece of the genre is the richly detailed animation, immersing the viewer in a strange, beautiful but sometimes unsettling world, almost reaching the artistic heights of Surrealism. The film is packed with a cavalcade of gods and monsters who's weirdness is probably partly due to western audiences unfamiliarity with Japanese mythology, but still manages to make most fantasy cinema look like drab Dungeons and Dragon's rip-offs.

There are so many great scenes in Spirited Away. Two of my favourites are Chihiro's (the main character's) descent into the depths of the immense bathhouse of the gods looking for employment and her eventual meeting with the arachnoid Kamajii, the grumpy but kindly master of the boiler room-the sequence has a Steampunk feel. The other is the train journey near the end of the film across a wide expanse of a flooded plain, that comes very close to surrealist art. The mood conjured is a dreamy watery melancholia.

If you love fantasy and animation and you have not seen Spirited Away, then buy or rent the DVD ASAP. You will not be disappointed!

Other Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli DVD's in my collection:

Friday, 5 June 2009

DVD from my Collection: Romance, A Film by Catherine Breillat

Cinema and film culture is another interest of mine coming just behind imaginative fiction (novels and short stories.) So I suppose it's about time I started writing about films on Underground Man. Each time I view a DVD in my collection or purchase a new one I will write a mini-review. The bulk of my DVD viewing comes from online rental (Lovefilm), I watch two (just released or back catalogue) rental films a week, and I go to the cinema at least once a month, but I will not review these except if I buy the DVD later.

To get an idea of what type of cinema I like please take a look at my Blog profile or my top ten films released or re-issued in 2008.

Romance was one of those films released when the British Board of Film Classification had relaxed its rules in the late 90's, allowing scenes of real sex to appear in 18 certificate films. But unlike the revelling in nihilism and violence (see the nasty Baise-Moi) these films seemed to consist of, Romance although not a light hearted romp is chiefly about hanky-panky. Following a basic strand in much erotica-a sexually ravenous female protagonist, her needs frustrated by a cold husband or partner, goes on a sexual odyssey to find fulfilment-Catherine Breillat brings in a heavy chunk of feminism, alongside the explicit sex. The main character portrayed by the very attractive Caroline Ducey, picks up a stranger in a bar (played by Rocco Siffredi, a real life porn actor), for casual sex; offers herself for money to another but is raped in the process and engages in heavy bondage sessions with an older man. She finds a small amount of satisfaction in the affair with Siffredi, finding far more in the kinky games with the older libertine; but only with childbirth and autonomy from men (but not hatred of men) does she find herself.

Romance has an unreal artful quality like a depiction of a sexual fantasy or dream. The most lurid sequence (out of many lurid sequences) is Ducey's fantasy of working in a brothel where her body is divided by a wall, offering the punters her legs and sex organs only, as the rest of her body is not visible. This is not a gritty, realist portrayal of relations between the sexes, but rather what goes on inside the protagonist's mind when she thinks about sex. One of the few films directed by a woman, Catherine Breillat's feminism makes a refreshing antidote to the male dominated world of erotica, but also it's important to add to the dour puritans going under the label 'feminist' in the UK.

Other erotic films in my DVD collection:

In the Realm of the Senses

The Beast

Immoral Tales

Sex and Lucia