My Robot Occupation Movies #1 – Blade Runner

My son is at an age where rating things is all-important. The most common question I get from him after we watch a movie is, ‘How many stars would you give that?’ This in turn has led to an extended ‘What’s your favourite movie?’ conversation.

Well, he’s got me thinking. Just what are my favourite movies? And why? So, over the next few blog posts I’ll be putting these thoughts into some kind of order. So, imagine for a moment that the world has been invaded and occupied by an army of robots, and you could only grab a handful of DVDs before you were incarcerated… what would they be?

These have to be the movies you simply couldn’t live without. They don’t have to be the best films ever, just the ones that mean the most to you. The ones that tell your own story.

So that’s what I’m going to do. And I’m going to start, as all good stories should, in the middle somewhere…

I first saw Blade Runner at my friend Kristian’s place. It was his birthday, and I’m guessing we were 11/12 years old. The room was full of boys expecting a kind-of Indiana Jones in the future. That’s what the VHS cover art promised, and that never lies, right?

In stereo!
In stereo!

What we got was something that split the room. Most of the group found it boring. Just me, Kris, and another kid called David Snell thought it was cool, though if you asked any of us to explain it, I doubt we could have managed anything more articulate than “There’s this bloke who has to hunt these robots – no, replicants! – and there’s a cool bit where this guy gets his eyes gouged out, and it was all very dark…”

But then the Marvel comic adaptation started appearing in the back of my weekly Return of the Jedi comic, and the story started making more sense. I read this again and again, then rented the movie, and there was definitely more than first met the eye with this film.

Too late for my GCSE English (and probably just as well) I found a film tie-in copy of Blade Runner in my local second hand bookshop. Only it wasn’t a mere tie-in, this was an original book by some guy called Philip K Dick (snigger). This would surely answer all my outstanding questions! Oh boy, was I wrong. Dick’s incredible book, with its meditation on identity and reality, just brought a million more questions flooding to my brain.

Then, on my 18th birthday, I went alone to the Odeon on Shaftesbury Avenue to see the legendary director’s cut (yeah, I know how to party!). To see that grand opening on the big screen with Vangelis’s score turned up to 11 was just amazing, though – to be honest – I missed the much-maligned voice-over. And to fully understand the whole meaning of the unicorn footage, I had to read Paul M Sammon’s excellent book FUTURE NOIR.

Since then, I’ve bought various VHS and DVD special editions and box sets. It’s bloody exhausting trying to make sense of this film. I’m now not convinced that Deckard is a replicant. That whole backstory now feels like Ridley retconning, and I still miss that voiceover.

My wife has yet to see the film all the way through without falling asleep. I have younger colleagues who can admire the film, but wouldn’t rate it as a classic, and I firmly believe that this is because you had to make the journey with this film for it to have its full impact. From first viewing, to comic, to book, to more books, director’s cuts and final cuts, to box sets with little dinky toy Spinners in them.

It is imperfect, but its riddles will never fully be resolved, and that’s one reason why I love it.

Here’s the orignal trailer. In keeping with the film’s history, it’s terrible:

PS. My friend Kristian also introduced me to Mad Max 1 & 2, various horror movies, and Firefox, and for that I shall always be grateful.

Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country is bloody… (spoiler free review)

I remember getting an email from my colleague Simon Spanton some years ago. It was a simple message, ‘You’ll like this.’ Attached to the email was a file with the first few chapters of a book he wanted to buy for Gollancz called The Blade Itself. I opened the attachment and started to read.

He wasn’t wrong; the combination of black humour, violence and dental torture appealed to me very much. I wanted to read more and I’m happy to say that when we published The Blade Itself it was something of a hit (that was a golden summer for Gollancz debuts, also published were The Lies of Locke Lamora and Stormcaller – all belters).

I’m also happy to say that I’ve got to know Joe Abercrombie a bit over the years and should declare that before ploughing into this review of this latest THE RED COUNTRY. I’ll also do my best to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, but if you’d rather go in cold, then come back when you’ve read the book.

When Joe announced that his next book would be a Western, but still set in the same world as his previous books, I was excited and slightly worried. The Western genre is incredibly tricky to pull off, especially in literature. Even in the movies, you could count the really good Westerns of the last 20 years on one hand (Unforgiven, Assassination of Jesse James… and… er… that might be it).

But what Joe understands is that Westerns aren’t about Sheriffs, or shootouts, or John bloody Wayne, they’re about the frontier. The farthest reaches of civilisation where lawlessness is the norm, where the regular rules don’t apply and death is ever-present. And what he’s done is take some of his most interesting and complex characters, drop them at the very edge of his world, and let the chaos unfold.

There are some new characters; Shy is a woman with an outlaw past trying to reform her life on a farm. She’s one part Calamity Jane (the Deadwood version) and one part Marion Ravenwood (the Raiders version).

Temple is a classic Abercrombie coward; he wants to be a good man, he promises that next time he’ll make a stand, but every time he caves in and takes the easy option.

Lamb is Shy’s stepfather – described as ‘some kind of coward’, he too steps away from any kind of confrontation, and would rather be alone working in the fields than raise his fists.

And there are some old favourites, not least Nicomo Cosca, here playing a combination of Richard Harris in Unforgiven and General Custer. He even has his own biographer, scribbling his every utterance for posterity.

Oh, and of you watch the book’s teaser trailer you might just see something significant…

Did you see it? The fingers? Count ’em… Nine!

Shy’s little brother and sister are stolen and she and Lamb follow their trail to get them back. And as they’re led further and further west, you realise that this will be no breakneck chase. This story unfolds like The Searchers and their quest will continue through blistering desert heat, driving rain and deep snow. They will encounter so much bloody violence that Joe gives Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian a run for its money for gallons of claret spilt. And, as always with Joe’s books, villains reveal themselves to complex individuals, the heroes of their own stories, and our heroes will make choices that are questionable at best.

Joe has clearly been watching a lot of Deadwood, a lot of classic Spaghetti Westerns, a lot of Eastwood, and he’s been reading a lot of Elmore Leonard’s Western stories. This could have been a mess and, if you read Joe’s blog, you’ll know that this has been hard work for him. But it’s a terrific read, a picaresque journey through a dying wasteland and a world about to change. The action is intense, but you never get lost in the mayhem, the story is complex, but it’s a joy to read, and the ending will leave you wanting more.

Saddle-up and enjoy the ride.

Mitch Benn’s Terra

It’s a perk, nay privilege, of working for a publisher that I often get to see manuscripts of books long before anyone else. So you may well see a few posts like this where I’ll start eulogising about a book that you won’t be able to read for months if not longer.

But I finished this one on the train home today and I’m still fizzing about it and I like to wax lyrical about stuff I like while it’s still fresh. I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, but if you’re the kind of person who thinks a spoiler is hearing anything at all to do with the story (and there are people out there like that), then adios and I’ll see you next time, amigo.

There’s a great story behind how Simon Spanton at Gollancz acquired this book, and being a fan of Mitch Benn’s songs on the Now Show I was definitely intrigued if maybe a tad doubtful. ‘Celebrity’ authors’ books (though I doubt Mitch would cast himself as your typical sleb) are usually an exercise in stunt publishing and a quick buck for all concerned*, but by the end of the first page I was totally convinced that this was something special.

I won’t say too much other than TERRA begins with an alien from a distant planet abducting a human baby on Earth. The story starts like a Roald Dahl classic with the worst parents in the world, and then becomes a love letter to Douglas Adams, and then becomes its own thing entirely; truly wonderful, laugh out loud funny and genuinely moving, wearing its heart on its sleeve and daring you not to blub near the end. If there’s one criticism, it’s that it has that old SF trope ‘silly name syndrome’ – all consonants and no vowels – but even that seems to be a tip of the hat to Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and you soon get into the groove.

The only downside is that it’s not out till 2013, but it’s going to be a key book for Gollancz and I’m sure you won’t be able to miss it. In the meantime, here’s Mitch’s finest 5m 27s…

*Yes, I hate to break it to you, but I don’t think Katie Price writes every word of her bestselling novels. Anne Widdecombe does write all her own stuff however, so you takes your choice…