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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Lois Tilton review Short Fiction, early April 2010

Zines Reviewed

With the digests coming in for review, I found myself reading a greater proportion of science fiction than fantasy, which made for a change.

Asimov's, June 2010

The theme for this issue seems to be exploration.

"Earth III" by Stephen Baxter

Humans fleeing a drowned Earth have settled on a planet tidally locked to its dim red star. The culture has devolved to a preindustrial level, and a really ridiculous religion maintains a shaky hegemony over various resentful states and settlements. Trouble begins when the manipulative daughter of the religion's Speaker convinces a stranger to take her away from her boring life as a vestal virgin. The Speaker and his bullying son get up an army and follow in pursuit, all the way to the dark side of the world, where they find a real Wonder.

While the story may be an Iliad, there are no heroes; indeed, no particularly appealing characters. Selfish Vala should have been thrown off the boat first thing, and Khilli is a villain straight from the cliché closet. The most interesting thing here is the world and its evolutionary history. This one, like the author's previous "Earth II," is a sequel to his Flood novels, leading to the usual problem: backstory, which in this case is excessive. Perhaps readers of Baxter's Ark will be fascinated to hear what became of Helen Gray, but I suspect that others will not know or care why everyone keeps talking about her.

"Emperor of Mars" by Allen M Steele

Jeff Halbert was what we called a "Mars monkey." We had a lot of people like him at Arsia Station, and they took care of the dirty jobs that the scientists, engineers, and other specialists could not or would not handle themselves. One day they might be operating a bulldozer or a crane at a habitat construction site. The next day, they'd be unloading freight from a cargo lander that had just touched down.
But Jeff's family is killed while he is away on Mars and he falls into depression. To divert himself, he starts reading old Martian science fictions and soon becomes obsessed with the outdated fantasies of the Red Planet.

A nice, low-key piece of Real [nonfantastic] science fiction.

"Petopia" by Benjamin Crowell

Mina's family scrapes by on the streets, which is to say that Mina and her mother do the scraping. Her father is hopeless, but Mina wishes her brother would grow up and start contributing.
Nga was worried, of course — perhaps in the same way one would worry about a goat that had jumped a fence, and might damage someone else's garden — but what could she do? She had to clean the rooms at the Novotel in the day, and then go and sell the toilet paper at the bus station in the evening.
One day while salvaging discarded computer parts, Mina finds a fuzzy purple cybertoy, and Jelly proves to be useful in many ways.

Not really an original premise but nicely told, in a lively and realistic near-future milieu.

"Monkey Do" by Kit Reed

A writer story, a variation on the monkeys and typewriters. The narrator originally bought Spud while researching his Monkey Planet book, which tanked. After which, it was impossible to get rid of the creature.
Spud got bored or jealous or some damn thing whenever I sat down to write. Worse, every time I walked away to get coffee or look out the window for inspiration, which was often, he hopped up on the table and started bopping away at my keyboard with his little fists, bonka-bonka-bonka, and one day when I came back from gazing into the bathroom mirror, I found words.

I must say that writer stories in general are not my favorite thing, but this one is funny stuff.

"The Peacock Cloak" by Chris Beckett

Virtual reality. Fabbro created an idyllic world and copies of himself to live in it, but the copies eventually began to get ideas of their own, and ambitions. Finally, after rebellions and wars, Fabbro has entered the world he made and Tawus has come to confront him, to justify himself.
"I used to think about you looking in from outside," he said. "When we had wars, when we were industrializing and getting people off the land, all of those difficult times. I used to imagine you judging me, clucking your tongue, shaking your head. But you try and bring progress to a world without any adverse consequences for anyone. You just try it."

There is more here than virtual reality. Tawus embodies the contradictions between determinism and free will, between progress and stagnation. This is the retelling of a much older story of creation and rebellion.


"Voyage to the Moon" by Peter Friend

The astronomer Thithiwith has cultivated a large house pod until it is capable of flight. He means to explore the heavens, although he has had to tell the Queen that the purpose of his journey is to bring her a petal of the moon flower. Highly fantastic adventures ensue.
Before we could celebrate our freedom, the star lashed out with long tendrils, and we were surrounded by blindly fleeing cloud worms. The Glory lurched and I saw it too had been struck by a tendril. We were slowly dragged towards the flowerlike mouth along with thousands of worms.
This is definitely not our world. I thought at first that it was excessively silly, but like the quarrelling astronomers, this tale is more clever than it first appeared and full of imaginative stuff.

"Dreadnought Neptune" by Anna Tambour

If a spaceship suddenly appeared on the street, who would rush to crowd onboard? Jules Thomas would, and he bring his young son Eugene along to share the adventure, to prove to himself that Eugene is another incarnation of his father and not his stolid wife Agnes.

It is hard at first to figure just what is going on, except for a throng of people crushed together in an enclosed space, farting. The eventual explanation is hard to credit, and harder to credit is Agnes not seeming to have heard a word of it, given the drastic outcome of the event.

Analog, June 2010

In addition to the usual, there are several authors here whose names are unfamiliar to me. It's good to see new writers.

"The Anunnaki Legacy" by Bond Elam

Yet Another tale of dedicated scientists vs the greedy mining consortium. Anunnaki is the human name for the alien race that supposedly once visited Earth and raised its creatures to sentience. Humans have launched a fleet to track them down but until now met with scant success; the relict ship discovered on iron-rich Slag may be the best lead yet discovered. The indigenous lifeforms there appear to have been genetically modified. The fix, however, is in, and despite all their protests, the science officers are given only 96 hours until the mining ships arrive to suck out Slag's core.

Once past the dreadfully clichéd opening with its snarling villain, I found sufficient stuff to like here, particularly the evolutionary science. The plot develops real tension; the situation of the scientists goes from dire to direr, and they strongly suspect the Evile mining boss is trying to kill them. Unfortunately, he also did his best to kill the story, which has potential for interest despite the unoriginal scenario.

"Space Aliens Taught My Dog To Knit!" by Jerry Oltion & Elton Elliott

Delmer is a conspiracy nut who is currently obsessed by his conviction that there is an alien base on the dark side of the moon, which is being covered up by NASA and other government agencies. The problem is, no one believes him. But in his quest for convincing evidence, he gets too close to the truth.
The ramp slid back into the saucer, the lights brightened, and the UFO rose up into the air again. Delmer expected it to shoot straight up, but instead it slid silently up the road — straight at their car.

Fun stuff inspired by the tabloids. There is not, however, a dog.

"Connections" by Kyle Kirkland

Ellam K Troy is a detective and also a member of the Opposition to the ruling nanny state, doing his best to subvert it, as most of the population does, while evading rehab for such crimes as eating sugary food.
Sandra was about to say something when the alarm bell rang. An instant later a bot rolled up to our table and tilted it, collecting every scrap into the incinerator in its belly. Another bot wiped our faces and squirted masque in our mouths. We rinsed and spit into the bot's cuspidor.

Ellam's former mentor's AI has contacted him to ask for help resolving the cause of his death, which the government claimed as an accident. It turns out that Arden Kirst had a lot of secrets, some of which might lead to the downfall of the hated government.

While the scenario here involves a conflict between freedom and stifling security, the narrative is happily free from ponderous lectures on this subject; the overall tone is light, oriented more towards entertainment than ideology. Accordingly, I'm not too much bothered by how easily Ellam and his illegal car escape capture by to too-incompetent government cops.

"Heist" by Tracy Canfield

A couple of sentient AIs run a con on an innocent mark recruited in an online game.

Bill nearly closed the window in reflexive shock, as if it had started blasting an advertising jingle or looping an animation of a dead kitten. With a caution that would have done credit to a hand surgeon, he brought up the account history.

A neat variation on an SF classic. The character makes the game work.

"At Last the Sun" by Richard Foss

Out on a shrimp boat in the Gulf, a group of scientists are studying the expanding dead zone caused by chemicals washed down the Mississippi when they spot something on the fish finder that certainly shouldn't be down there on the lifeless seafloor.
The two sets of tentacles on each side pulsed in rhythm, while the fins worked independently to both steer and add momentum. Something gaped and closed next to each to the three compound eyes, and there was movement in the huge triangular mouth each time it opened. A dark band encircled its body just behind the tentacles, irregular bulges dangling from it.

An environmental story, yet there are no heavy-handed lectures on the subject from the nicely-done cast of characters, who appreciate the complexity of the current situation. Neat idea.


"A Time for Heroes" by Edward M Lerner

Travis is a pro gamer, hired by the developers to test virts before release to the public. The virt he is testing now is a war game, but after a number of sessions, something seems wrong about the enemy bots; they don't act quite like bots. Are they other players, like himself? He gradually realizes that something is very wrong.

The character development of Travis within the game is effective, but a lot depends on the character of real-life before-the-game Travis, whom we don't really know.

"Cargo" by Michael F Flynn

Post-apocalypse. After the Fall, it became a deadly sin to remember such things as cities and supermarkets and books, even though the ruins lie all around, not yet entirely covered by wilderness. Nob's gramper was a small boy when it happened and he was stoned for remembering, as Nob's mother was, as well, for passing on the stories. Now Nob is old and drinks to forget, but young Will, who might be his son, is trying to bring the stories to life, and Nob can't stand to witness another stoning.
"It's an ancient prophecy. 'If you build it, they will come.' He figures if he builds a supermarket, someone will come stock it."

It's not inconceivable that some isolated communities might have reverted to a primitive religion after the fall of civilization, because there is no idea so demented that some group of humans won't adopt it. But the real point of this one is the way people can live within a technologically complex civilization without understanding how it works, just as if it were magic.

Jim Baen's Universe, April 2010

I'd been waiting with some interest for the final issue of this ezine, wondering if it would go out with a great spectacular bang like a fireworks show that saves the biggest display for last. Not so, however, in the case of JBU; the finale contains only five complete original stories. Still, the majority of these final tales are not of diminished quality.

"Afterimage" by J Kathleen Cheney

Murder mystery. Detective William Greene views the corpse, felled by an EM blast that took out his heart regulator.
His body looked too fit to be natural, the kind of fitness only the wealthy could afford — metabolism regulator chips, continual isometric toning programs, possibly even a few DNA alterations. A man like that didn't have gray in his hair unless he wanted to.
Suspicion falls first on a cult opposed to all cyberenhancements, which worries Greene, who relies heavily on his own vision implants. But a detective can still function without sight.

Well-done detective story with a nice cast of cops and possible suspects.


"Trappers" by Stoney Compton

Alien contact. While Caleb is trapping beaver, Ta'ffil is planning to trap the trapper instead of the gold she is supposed to be obtaining on this planet as fuel for the ship. But Ta'ffil is fatally reckless, and now her partner is left with the task. Except that Caleb has gotten to the gold first. In the words of the immortal Bugs Bunny: "This means war."

An engaging and deadly duel between two species, pretty evenly matched in ingenuity despite the alien's technological superiority.

"Storming Venus" by John Lambshead

A sequel. As usual with these, there is a backstory problem, but this time the problem is an insufficiency of backgrounding, rather than the usual excess. Readers unfamiliar with this milieu may not readily grasp that Sarah Brown, as a pilot in Her Majesty's Royal Navy, is a female spiritualist who brings ships through the interplanetary aether. This time, Captain Fitzwilliam has commandeered her to guide him on a mission of espionage to Venus, where the Nazis Prussians have established a secret base at which they may be working black magic. Adventures ensue.

The inadequate backstory is not the only problem here. The author drops the reader straight into a gratuitous dungeon as Sarah is interrogated by a spittle-spraying inquisitor in consequence of events in the previous installment. This was the weakest point of an otherwise interesting premise in the original story, and just in case readers might take seriously the threat of Sarah being burned to death as a witch, she refers to her situation "a beastly, silly, pottage of a pickle." Once Captain Fitzwilliam rescues her, the witch matter is dropped entirely out of the plot. Throughout the ensuing adventures, we must endure endless tedious banter of the "don't bother your pretty, empty head" variety from both Fitzwilliam and Sarah's spirit guide Captain Hind; this one-note song soon loses its charm. On the other hand, the author displays a nice touch with horror:
She touched the wood and her mind dropped into a dark pit of despair. Newts armed with stabbing spears ran in a circle along a fixed track from which they could not deviate. Each newt cut at the back of the newt in front to make it go faster so that the striker could try to escape the cuts from the newt behind. Each cut inflicted savage pain that spurred the victim forward. The newts were locked in an eternal cycle of misery.

"Hollywood Ending" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Hollywood magic. In 1946, aspiring writer Elizabeth is working at the studio lot for a famous screenwriter when four little men show up.
They looked like they'd walked out of a fairy tale. They were astonishing little and unbelievably old, the kind of old you rarely see any more, the wizened wrinkled shrunken old that made them all look like peeled apples left too long in the sun.
Whatever they tell him is devastating to her mentor, but it is just as disconcerting to Elizabeth when the little men tell her she is expected to take his place. But how? And doing what?

This is a story about time and people who can control it, stop it, slow it down; who can change history. We know from the beginning that this is not our own timeline, but it takes a long time to learn what Jackson Holden Carter had to do with the change, and it is never really clear what Elizabeth's role is supposed to be, except to remember. The Hollywood setting is quite vividly realized and the narrative voice rings true. However, Jackson's secrets are not discovered by Elizabeth in the course of the plot but instead delivered by the narrator as a Revelation; and they have the sense of something contrived.

"Little Things" by J F Keeping

Mick is the lonely AI in charge of an army of bots sent to a prospective colony world to prepare it for human colonization. There seem to be no indigenous lifeforms higher than bacterioids, but Mick discovers that something is causing his bots to malfunction and the effect is spreading rapidly.

Essentially, this is a scientific mystery, but not a very deep one; the solution is pretty obvious from the setup. The narrative is excessively heavy with infodump, and it is hard to credit an AI as angst-ridden and emotionally needy as Mick.

Clarkesworld Magazine, April 2010

Tales from two of fantasy's rising stars, although the first is actually science fiction.

"Between Two Dragons" by Yoon Ha Lee

Even when empires have spread across space, some things remain the same. Cho lies between the greater powers of Feng-Huang and Yamat, whose ambitious ruler has invaded Cho's space. Admiral Yen Shenar is Cho's most capable military leader, but his success has created a jealous enemy of higher rank. To save himself, he has to lose part of himself. His story is told to him in absentia by the programmer from the Ministry of Virtuous Thought who wiped his mind at his own request and now awaits news of his ultimate battle, that will determine the fate of all Cho.

The poetry of war:
We wither under a surfeit of light as readily as we wither beneath drowned hopes. When photons march soldier-fashion at an admiral's bidding, people die.
But this is a tale less of combat than of the honor of individuals on the field of political intrigue. The metaphor of the title evokes an old tale of Korea, a tiger between the powerful dragons of larger empires.


"January" by Becca De La Rosa"

January has suddenly disappeared, and now Fionn can't even remember her clearly.
"Some people just aren't real," Mara said, as if she had sensed a faux pas and wanted to remedy it. "You can tell by the sound of their names. She is not a real person, or not the kind of person it's easy to find in reality, at any rate."
But Mara, Fionn's wife, is not entirely real herself, being a ghost who inhabits his oven. Swan is also concerned about January, claiming to be her sister, but then Swan nibbles on glass, making her reality a bit suspect, as well.

According to January, there are more states of being than alive and dead, although she does not define them. This leaves a number of possibilities: it seems quite probable that everyone in this story is dead, or at least not alive; it is quite probable that Fionn, who seems the most likely to be alive, is dreaming this entire thing. It's that sort of fiction. One thing seems clear, that ties among people persist beyond life. Besides that, however, I must admit that I haven't a clue to make sense of this.

Subterranean Online, Winter 2010

This novella was serialized throughout March.

"Her Deepness" by Livia Llewellyn

Dark fantasy. Gillian was an orphan, a child of the mines with a strong affinity for the seams of anthracite. She escaped to become a stone worker, unusually capable of bringing out the form that lies hidden in the stone. But she has now fallen into the hands of a cult that believes it has discovered a stone containing a god; they want her to bring it to life. Except that most of Gillian's story is not true, and her true journey is inward, into the geologic deepness where she was born, into the truth about herself.

Everything here is highly fantastic. There are ancient cosmic and chthonic gods, there are a billion years of living stone, there are half-inhuman sibyls that can see into the deepness of a soul to what is hidden. This aspect of the story is more vaguely sensed than seen, at the place where dream and metaphor flow into each other. On the other hand, the continent-vast city of Obsidia, with its mines and factories and railways, with its poisoned air, is quite vividly seen, a creation more monstrous in its own way than the elder gods which, seen up close, inevitably disappoint with their mundanity, for some things are better imagined than seen, while others appear in vivid images.
From her feet to the horizon, Obsidia stretches out and up: deep valleys of smoking furnaces and factories to snow-capped peaks of the Tenebroso crowned with stacks a hundred stories high, jetting green fire against the red disk of the rising sun. Countless train tracks catch the morning rays as they shoot from the bowels of the city, filled with the riches of the earth–copper, coal, silver, potassium nitrate and iron ore–and disperse up the hemisphere to all corners of the world. And in between the dark edges of industry, hazy spherical glimpses of another city rise from Obsidia's midst, the strange geometries of their god's city made real as it's pulled from dark ocean waters thousands of miles away, and reassembled in their midst.

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Materials for review such as magazines and original anthologies can be sent to the following

Lois Tilton
POBox #4617
Wheaton, IL 60189

For an index of Magazine Issue reviews posted on Locus Online, including Lois Tilton's, see Index to Magazine Reviews.


Monday, April 5, 2010

Thoroughly Modern Mythology?: A Review of Clash of the Titans

by Gary Westfahl

While the director (Desmond Davis) and screenwriter (Beverley Cross) of the original Clash of the Titans (1981) are duly cited in this remake's closing credits, the name of that film's producer, special effects artist, and true creator, Ray Harryhausen, is strangely absent. This would appear to undermine what science fiction fans would prefer to believe about the origins of this new film: that it was conceived as a loving tribute to that celebrated master of stop-motion animation, best known for a series of memorable fantasy films that began with The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and concluded with Clash of the Titans (as opposing to representing yet another case of an idea-deprived, risk-averse Hollywood seizing upon a proven success to churn out a serviceable product that will lure the masses into theatres and generate profits before word of mouth drives them away). However, since there are signs that director Louis Leterrier and writers Travis Beacham, Phil Hay, and Matt Manfredi were actually aware of, and appreciative of, Harryhausen's accomplishments, perhaps the omission of his name was intended as a kindness to a still-living legend who might not wish to be associated with this very different version of his most famous film.

A different version, I must emphasize, not an inferior version; for while it would be easy to complain that this new film represents a shameless trashing of a cherished classic, and while such remakes do exist (cf. The Day the Earth Stood Still [review here]), critics must be wary of a reflexive nostalgia that would blind them to the realities of changing times, and I would rather regard this film as precisely the sort of Clash of the Titans that one would have to produce in the year 2010. Certainly, it is unsurprising to see Harryhausen's crude and laborious stop-motion animation replaced with state-of-the-art, persuasively rendered, computer-generated effects, yet the story which provided the pretext for his extravagant creations, a loose adaptation of the Greek myth of Perseus, also had to be reshaped for a new generation.

Specifically: Harryhausen's films were always low-budget efforts aimed primarily at children, and the way that they characterized the relationship between Greek mortals and their gods in Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) reflects once-common attitudes about the relationship between children and their parents. That is, children may sometimes love their parents, and sometimes hate their parents, but they must always put up with their parents, since they are the ones in charge. Similarly, to Harryhausen's heroes, the gods sometimes seem wise and benevolent, and sometimes seem petty and vindictive, but they can see no way to resist their overwhelming power, clearly conveyed by the recurring conceit of chess pieces representing mortals being moved by gods across a chessboard in Jason and the Argonauts to illustrate how the gods were effortlessly controlling everything the mortals were doing. And the very young viewers of those films could readily accept this notion of distant authority figures firmly dominating lesser beings.

Today, however, if producers are aiming at theatres instead of the direct-to-video market, they must make films for larger audiences, and a typical target is the most frequent filmgoers, teenagers and young adults. Accordingly, Cross's Clash of the Titans has been refashioned as a story about adolescent rebellion against distant authority figures. At the beginning of the film, the citizens of Greece have grown tired of their meddling, oppressive gods and are openly rebelling against them, so that Olympians like Zeus (Liam Neeson) and Hades (Ralph Fiennes), who somehow depend upon the love and fear of mortals to maintain their immortality, must ponder strategies to regain the respect of their restless subjects; Hades even says that "like children," the mortals "need to be reminded of the order of things." On a personal level, Zeus's son Perseus (Sam Worthington) repeatedly rejects his father's invitation to join the gods and resists using the magical weapons Zeus covertly provides him with because he does not want to "become like" the gods. Of course, the last thing that typical teenagers want to do is to grow up and become like their parents.

This shift in attitudes in reflected in the film's most overt references to Harryhausen's legacy. When Perseus and the soldiers who will accompany him are gathering equipment for their mission, he picks up an exact replica of Bubo, the cute mechanical owl which was Perseus's constant companion in the original Clash of the Titans, a device obviously introduced to amuse very young viewers and hence a device despised by many older viewers. When Perseus asks, "What is this?" the brusque response of veteran soldier Draco (Mads Mikkelson) is "Just leave it," signaling that this, more mature version of the story is not for children. And although we observe in Olympus small statuettes of mortals, including Perseus, which resemble chess pieces, they are never pushed around on a chessboard, since these gods are unable to control their mortals.

This theme of rebellion against authority has a political dimension as well, with the gods portrayed as tyrants correctly being resisted by mortals seeking freedom. Thus, as the first visualization of the human campaign against the gods, Perseus and his adoptive parents, fisherman Spyros (Pete Postlethwaite) and wife Marmara (Elizabeth McGovern), watch as the soldiers of Argos defiantly topple an enormous statue of Zeus, precisely mimicking the famous footage of victorious soldiers toppling the statue of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Absolute rulers on Earth — the royalty of Argos — fare no better: when King Kepheus (Michael Regan) and Queen Cassiopeia (Polly Walker) resist Hades's demand that their daughter Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) be sacrificed to the monstrous Kraken to spare their city from destruction, angry citizens take to the streets to successfully demand the sacrifice on the grounds that their princess is "no better than us." And Andromeda herself, properly sensitive to the plight of her subjects (she defiantly asks her parents, "Have you seen what's happening out there? Have you even bothered to look?"), hands out food to suffering peasants and happily agrees to die for them. What is more provocative, and correspondingly more understated, is that this business of battling against one's gods has an anti-religious aspect as well, best conveyed by the unsympathetic zealot Prokopion (Luke Treadaway) who leads the mob that seizes Andromeda and strings her up to be sacrificed, all on the grounds that this is, after all, what the gods want. In its pursuit of big box-office dollars, though, Clash of the Titans cannot dare to openly suggest that, perhaps, contemporary people might also be better off if they decided to stop worshipping their own repressive gods.

Still, in one key respect, the film fully respects traditional hierarchies: as the son of Zeus, Perseus possesses the proper aristocratic pedigree that automatically qualifies him as the world's "savior" (which is what Draco calls him, not entirely sarcastically), so the other, more plebeian warriors gradually defer to his judgment in all matters; and eventually, several of them willingly sacrifice their own lives to help Perseus kill Medusa and emerge as the film's hero, which we are told represents his destiny. It is in the manner that this outsider is implausibly embraced as everyone's messiah, and not simply his habit of flying around on the back of a large winged creature, that Worthington's Perseus resembles his role in another recent film that, as some may vaguely recall, also attracted some criticism for an overreliance on clichéd themes. But clearly, the narrative motif of the undistinguished common man who is revealed to be The Chosen One is much too appealing to abandon in favor of lip service to egalitarian values, and the film definitely never promised any genuine novelty, inasmuch as its first line is "The oldest stories ever told are written in the stars."

The story has been awkwardly updated in another way which undermines the film's emotional impact. In the days before feminism, everyone was comfortable with the notion that men would handle all the heroics, while the role of women was simply to be rescued, or to wait at home for their heroes' return. Thus, the original Clash of the Titans followed Greek mythology in developing a romance between Perseus and the threatened Andromeda, who upon being rescued by her hero was appropriately destined to become his bride. Today, however, heroes must fall in love with women who prove they are just as tough as men by accompanying them and actively participating in the heroics. (Consider, as one example, the smart, capable female guide who replaced more demure predecessors as the romantic interest in the remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth [2008] [review here]). But in this case, since the story line required Andromeda to stay at home as the Kraken's intended victim, she could not join Perseus's mission. Hence, while Perseus (spoiler alert!) still rescues Andromeda in the end, they do not fall in love with each other, and he rejects her implicit offer to marry her and become the new king of Argos. Instead, to function as a fittingly liberated object of Perseus's affections, the film introduces a new character, Io (Gemma Atherton), seemingly a name randomly chosen from Greek mythology since her character bears little resemblance to the Greek demigoddess seduced by Zeus. Instead, this Io tells Perseus that she was a mortal who once resisted a god's advances and therefore was punished with the gift of eternal life. No, this doesn't make any sense, as Perseus himself comments, but it does allow an ageless Io to function as Perseus's lifelong protector (a role she assumes for unknown reasons), to guide him during his journeys, and to ultimately replace Andromeda as his lover. The problem is that this desperately contrived character generally seems more motherly than romantic and never manages to develop any genuine relationship with Perseus during their adventures, so that their final pairing is merely a nod toward convention, not a satisfying conclusion. Perhaps there wasn't time for an additional rewrite to better integrate this character into the action.

The script would also have benefited from some revision to address the problem of the film's slow, stumbling start, as Perseus spends too much time as a passive observer of the unfolding story (Io's first words to him are, tellingly, "do nothing") while he resists the idea of becoming a hero (announcing that "I mend nets, not wield a sword"). Can anyone possibly imagine that his reluctance is generating any genuine suspense, that there are actually members of the audience sitting on the edge of their seats and wondering, "Will Perseus embrace his destiny and set out to kill the Kraken, or will he go back to being a humble fisherman?" And unlike the original, this film strangely neglects the interesting characters of the other Olympian gods, whose role here is generally limited to standing around and listening to Zeus and Hades making speeches; for example, one has to be extremely attentive to notice, from his one brief close-up and snippet of dialogue, that the god Hermes is portrayed by Alexander Siddig, Dr. Bashir from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999). Since the film clearly enjoyed a hefty budget (knowingly referenced by Zeus when he tosses the underworld-bound Perseus a coin and comments, "It's expensive where you're going"), the producers might have spent a few thousand dollars hiring an expert on Greek mythology as a consultant; certainly, one of the most remarkable aspects of the series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-1999) was that its creators actually read and drew upon that rich tradition, and a knowledgeable scholar might have offered these filmmakers a few good ideas to consider. (If nothing else, such a consultant may have suggested that Perseus's new, more adventurous girlfriend would be better named, say, Atalanta instead of Io, or that its new characters, the inhuman Djinn, would be better named Myrmidons.) This film also duplicates the original film's most egregious flaw — a disappointing conclusion — since neither of the Krakens is really as awesome as filmmakers had hoped. (As another similarity to Avatar [2009] [review here], the makers of Clash of the Titans succumbed to the delusion that one renders special effects more impressive by making them appear physically larger; but all objects can be the same size on a silver screen, and I found this film's giant scorpions — one of which actually stumbles while descending a mountain — far more creepy and frightening than its mountainous Kraken.)

On the set (or, more likely, in front of the blue screen), director Laterrier should have worked more with his actors as well. In the case of Sam Worthington, it may reflect the lingering influence of Avatar (though I have no idea which project he actually filmed first), or it may represent an effort to emphasize his character's disinclination to attain godhood, but his Perseus seems too much like an American marine in a World War II movie to be persuasive as an ancient Greek hero. (One wonders if he ad-libbed his most incongruous line, his instructions to comrades as they approached Medusa's temple: "don't look this bitch in the eye.") As for Ralph Fiennes, his Hades is far too stiff and ponderous to be truly menacing, while Gemma Arteron's Io is so vacuous as to render Worthington's affection for her utterly incomprehensible. Yet in contrast to Sir Laurence Olivier, who phoned in his performance of Zeus in the original Clash of the Titans, Liam Neeson demonstrates here that there really are no small parts, only small actors, by taking advantage of his very limited opportunities to make Zeus the only complex and emotionally resonant character in the entire film. Since he will win no awards for his efforts, one hopes at least that, like Olivier, he received a lot of money for his role.

One minor complaint: today, our thoughts about ancient Greece are inexorably linked to images of ruined temples and broken statues; thus, in a manifest effort to convey that their story is set in ancient Greece (and since there is nothing especially Grecian about the film's random mixtures of ethnicities and accents), the filmmakers have filled Clash of the Titans with images of ruined temples and broken statues. During their long journey, Perseus and his cohorts constantly walk past weathered statuary and abandoned ruins, and even Medusa's lair is depicted as a chaotic temple of cracked pillars and shattered stoneware. (In keeping with this theme, this version of Medusa, not content to merely transform people into statues, also enjoys smashing them to pieces after they are petrified, and I have already mentioned the destroyed statue of Zeus that serves as the beginning, and the endpoint, of Perseus's adventures.) The problem is that, at the time of this film's events, all of those statues logically would still be intact, and all of those temples would be inhabited, functional places of worship.

Yet the film's evocative ruins may be serving another, perhaps unintended purpose: to suggest that Clash of the Titans, despite its fitful strivings for modernity, today represents an antique, a story founded on outdated belief systems regarding inborn nobility and righteous struggles against absolute evil that no longer have a place in our contemporary world. At the same time, the ongoing popularity of such narratives — and there can be no doubt that this film will prove tremendously popular — indicates that many people retain a powerful attachment to ideologies and attitudes that they would unhesitatingly reject in real-life situations. However, since much of the entire genre of fantasy illustrates the same point, Clash of the Titans is hardly unique in this respect — and yes, anticipating its success, the filmmakers did leave the door open for a sequel. So, everyone should be prepared for a forthcoming Rehash of the Titans, another very modern, and very old, story.

Gary Westfahl's works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent books include two collections of essays — Science Fiction and the Two Cultures, co-edited with George Slusser, by various hands, and The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science, by the late Frank McConnell — the Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature, and its companion text The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993.

Directed by Louis Leterrier

Written by Travis Beacham, Phil Hay, and Matt Manfredi, based on the 1981 screenplay by Beverley Cross

Starring Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Mads Mikkelson, Jason Flemyng, Alexa Davalos, Liam Cunningham, Luke Treadaway, Michael Regan, Polly Walker, Pete Postlethwaite, and Elizabeth McGovern

Official Website: Clash of the Titans


© 2009 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.