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Monday, January 25, 2010

Russell Letson reviews Alexander Jablokov

Alexander Jablokov's Brain Thief is what you might call a quirky book. It's not just the wonderfully pulpy title or even the opening line — "For Bernal, the message in the cowboy boot finally confirmed that something was wrong" — or the fact that the message consists of "three foil-wrapped chocolates, bittersweet, and a 3x5 index card" with a note from Bernal's boss, Muriel Inglis. Muriel is sixtyish, rich, eccentric, a snappy dresser, a shoe enthusiast, a collector of tchotkes, and a backer of oddball schemes of all sorts, such as one to introduce genetically reconstructed mammoths to the depopulated plains of South Dakota. Bernal Haydon-Rumi is her only employee, a fixer-of-all-problems, particularly those requiring people skills, such as explaining the mastodon project to Dakotans:
Over the past year he'd spent a lot of time shivering on bleachers above floodlit high school football fields, packing in hot dishes in church basements, hunting prairie dogs on the rez with angry young Oglala Sioux, handing down tools while politically significant people ranted at him from under pickup trucks with transmission problems.

But now Muriel has vanished while looking into another of her pet schemes, the building of an experimental AI-based space exploration robot called Hesketh. Bernal spends the rest of the book chasing after her (and Hesketh), proceeding in the time-honored private-investigator mode, bouncing from source to source, getting lied to, or pointed toward a dead end, or punched, or whacked on the head with a cast-iron Borzoi, or locked in a pitch-dark wine cellar, or hoisted 20 feet in the air inside a mobile home and then chased by demented automated golf carts.

The mean streets through which Bernal pursues his McGuffin(s) owe more to Thomas Pynchon or Neal Stephenson than to Raymond Chandler. The business and organization names alone signal this, from the mild (Fleurs du Mall, Memory Lanes — florist and bowling alley respectively) to the wild: Ignacio's Devices and Desires (towing, salvage, and stolen-tech fencing), Enigmatic Ascent (midwestern space enthusiasts and launch-chasers), Near Earth Orbit (diner and unofficial storage facility for stolen goods), and Social Protection ("DELAYING THE SINGULARITY SINCE 2005" — we'll come back to that one).

As he works his way through leads and dead ends and strangely named businesses, Bernal encounters all manner of oddballs, dropouts, crooks, con artists, thieves, fences, fanatics, paranoids, and miscellaneous misfits. This is a secret-history/underground-world of traffickers in illicit refrigerants, space-launch chasers, art-specialist cat-burglars, and at least one serial killer (who puts severed heads in bowling-ball bags — thus The Bowler). By these standards, Norman Spillvagen seems pretty bland. His business card reads "Personality Enhancement," but the nebbishy suburbanite with the junk-filled garage and disaffected kids is also the proprietor of Long Voyage, a "cut-rate cryobank" immortality outfit. Spillvagen has lost track of some of his clients and is being hounded by the litigious Yolanda, who wants to know the whereabouts and condition of her Uncle Solly, or at least of his frozen head.

Bernal's path keeps crossing Spillvagen's and Yolanda's, and that of Patricia, a damaged and damaging waif who works for the thuggish Ignacio. He keeps returning to the Near Earth Orbit diner, with its giant cowgirl-on-a-rocket sign and its conspiracy-theorist waiter Bob, who also offers monitory comments on the bill of fare. ("Stay away from the paella.... I think it has squid in it. Those things evolved too long ago to be edible.") Bernal's most frequent companion and eventual ally is Charis Fen, a beefy but womanly ex-cop now representing the anti-AI outfit Social Protection. Charis is, to put it mildly, resistant to the lure of a miraculous future.
[T]hey keep promising... stuff. Things going on. Great advances. Constantly increasing speed, infinite power, all knowledge and cognition sliding down into an expanding Singularity that will suck everything up and remake the universe. And what do I actually get? The ability to learn the uninformed opinions of everyone in the world through round-cornered communications devices my fat fingers are too big to use.

Bernal, pinballing among these crooks and looneys, can barely figure out where he's going to wind up next — like the famously convoluted plot of the film version of The Big Sleep, this one spins us all around so thoroughly (often with a bucket over our heads) that by the time it's all sorted out it's hard to tell whether it all made sense. (I think it does, just don't make me explain how in detail.) But the chase is perhaps less important than the set-pieces with which it is studded, such as the aforementioned sequence that starts with our hero dodging bullets in a suspended mobile home and winds up with him dodging falling engine blocks at the bottom of a junk pit. On second thought, it would probably be a mistake to minimize the McGuffin-chase, since McGuffins don't usually chase back, which in turn means that this really is a science fiction story after all — just one that's set on the other side of the rabbit hole, which is always an entertaining place to visit, no matter which genre provides the excuse for the expedition.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from the January issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Brain Thief

Alexander Jablokov

(Tor 978-0-7653-2200-5, $24.99, 383pp, hc) January 2010

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Lawrence Person: If you liked The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, you'll like The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. It's the most Terry Gilliam film that Terry Gilliam has done in the last two decades. That's a good thing. Mostly.

Howard Waldrop: A wonder-show movie (the Alamo Drafthouse ran the trailer for The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao beforehand) that harks back to Ray Bradbury's Dark Carnival and Something Wicked This Way Comes, only this one is like a road-show version of a cross between King Lear and Mother Courage and Her Children.

There's an immortal Dr. Parnassus, his daughter, a little-person factotum, also a helper who loves the daughter, who plays Mercury in the presentation. There's a deal with the devil (Tom Waits, dressed like Walter Houston in All That Money Can Buy, AKA The Devil and Daniel Webster) and a Hanged Man who is important to the plot. (There's lots of Tarot imagery (and practice) in this, as in The Fisher King.)

Parnassus' wonder-wagon, like Li'l Abner's refrigerator, has more room on the inside than the outside (it's a 3-story, 50 ton caravan, pulled by one horse). There's a magic mirror (played by aluminum foil in a frame) that people go through, like in Cocteau's Blood of a Poet. The cheesiness is intentional.

LP: Parnassus and company attempt to play for indifferent, hostile, drunken crowds of modern Britons, the vast majority of whom have no desire to step through the proffered magic mirror, and those that do tend to choose the path of the Devil (in the form of various incarnations of instant sinful gratification) than Parnassus' path of enlightenment. The mirror seems to lead to the inside of Parnassus' mind, and functions as an external manifestation of the person's internal state; watching it brought back a line from Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie: "This is what it looked like inside Salvador Dali's head." Things begin to change when they come across the hanged man (Heath Ledger, in his last role), who turns out to be not entirely dead, possibly thanks to a special flute he had lowered into his windpipe. (Which is strange, because usually a magic coin is the instrument of resurrection...)

HW: This is probably Gilliam's best-integrated movie since Brazil. There are great scenes (a gondola on a lagoon filled with giant shoes is one) but the contrast between the set pieces and story aren't so great they cheese you off, as they did in The Brothers Grimm.

LP: This is much better than The Brothers Grimm, mainly because its flaws tends to be those in most of Gilliam's films (a rambling plot, an out-of-control quality to some scenes, set pieces that overwhelm the actors playing against them, etc.), which is infinitely preferable to the standard Hollywood bullshit that ruined The Brothers Grimm.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is almost a checklist not only of Munchausen, but of all Gilliam's tropes. Fantastic and amazing otherworldly landscapes? Check. (There's a monastery here every bit as imposing and unlikely as The Fortress of Ultimate Evil in Time Bandits.) Intermixture of fantasy and reality? Check. Colorful but shabby stage facades? Check. Midget? Check. (I had forgotten that Verne Troyer had a part in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, predating his Mini-Me fame.) There's even Lily Cole as a redhead every bit as young and hot as Uma Thurman was in Munchausen, and a policemen-in-pantyhose song-and-dance number that could have come straight out of his Monty Python days.

I'm with Howard to a point, but I don't think it works as well as The Fisher King, and maybe not even as well as Twelve Monkeys, which was a solid film, but not one that blew me away. (Much the same as my reaction to this one, though for largely different reasons.)

HW: Christopher Plummer is Dr. Parnassus — thinking about him 45 years ago in The Sound of Music gives you cognitive dissonance. It's his best acting in years. (Now he could play Lear.) The performances are fine throughout.

It's not a great movie, but it's fairly controlled (as controlled as any Gilliam movie can be) and there are some great set pieces (one's set in a landscape half Monty Python and half Grant Wood). There are bits of other movies, references to paintings, and in general good cultural fun. I sure didn't want my money back, which I did after The Brothers Grimm.

LP: Of all the films we've seen semi-recently, the one this most resembles is MirrorMask, right down to the externalized internal landscape, the traveling carnival atmosphere, and even the Commedia dell'arte masks. It's a shame Gilliam and Neil Gaiman have never collaborated on a movie, as they share some of the same central concerns, such as the primal role of Story in underpinning the world, and the vital necessity of fantasy. And I like to think that a Gilliam-helmed Sandman movie would be something to behold.

This is a good film that's just too uneven to be great (the rambling nature of the plot, the murky mystical underpinnings of the Parnassus' particular form of salvation (be happy, give up your material wealth, and... that's it?), and an ending that just doesn't quite come together as well as you would hope). And sometimes the sheer randomness puzzles you. Sure, having Tom Waits as the Devil pop of the head of a giant steam-powered babushka mother is sort of cool, but what exactly does it mean?

Make no mistake: This is definitely better than any movie we reviewed last year. But I can't help thinking that I've seen all of these moves before. Gilliam's films are still spanking fresh compared to Extruded Hollywood Movie Product, but they do tend to reiterate a fairly limited range of topics, and maybe he should try something (ahem) completely different for a change. Not that I'm saying he should make, say, a straight crime drama, and Martin Scorsese should make a Gilliamesque fantasy. (No wait, strike that. Even as failures, both of those would probably be all kinds of awesome.) But I would like to see something different from him. Still, I'm starting to wonder if my varying degrees of disappointment with each new Gilliam film is the fault of Gilliam, or my own longing for him to recapture the wonder of Brazil. How can you blame a man for never again equaling one of the greatest films ever made?

In a way, it's hard not to see Dr. Parnassus' traveling caravan as an unkind and deeply unfair metaphor for Gilliam's career (especially the way studios manage to turn each of his critical successes into a commercial failure). It's a shabby, broken-down, shambling remnant of what was once a glamorous conveyance, a permanently poverty-stricken sideshow tottering from one patchy, indifferent audience to another. But, whispers the showman, if you'd just ignore the tattered banners and bailing wire of the exterior, and step into the Imaginarium itself, oh, what amazing wonders and glories still await you...

HW: The movie's slowly creeping into theaters a city at a time (so far, LA, NYC, Boston and now Austin. It's coming to one near YOU, sometime in YOUR future.

Howard Waldrop's latest books are Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction, 1989 - 2003 and Things Will Never Be the Same: Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005, from Old Earth Books. Locus Magazine interviewed Waldrop in its November 2003 issue.

Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Postscripts, Jim Baen's Universe, Fear, National Review, Reason, Whole Earth Review, The Freeman, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and, as well as several anthologies. He also edits the Hugo-nominated SF critical magazine Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books.

Directed by Terry Gilliam

Written by Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown

Starring Christopher Plummer, Andrew Garfield, Lily Cole, Heath Ledger, Verne Troyer, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell

Official Website: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus - Official Site

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