Monday, 17 September 2012

"Clockwork Angels" - Kevin J Anderson - Book Review

If you are a Rush fan, then there’s a pretty good chance you’ve fallen in love with their superb album “Clockwork Angels”, released this year to extremely positive reviews that were well deserved. Drummer Neil Peart (which I’ve only just learned is pronounced ‘pee-yert’ - who knew!) wanted to do a concept album and put a lot of work into the lyrics, telling a story of an oppressive society where one boy rebels. Okay, so it’s all a little “2112”, but as that is the GREATEST TRACK EVER it’s okay.

What was special about this story was that whilst Peart sketched it roughly with the lyrics, it was left to acclaimed SF novelist Kevin J Anderson to fill in the gaps with this, the companion novel of the same name. Whereas Peart gave us an unnamed hero and a future/alternative steampunk world, Anderson (with plenty of input from Peart, naturally) has made it into a real place, with real people and a real hero in the shape of Owen Hardy, assistant orchard manager. Okay, so it’s not a glamorous job, but Owen is content and happy, as is everyone in the land of Albion. Albion, you see, is run by The Watchmaker, who resides in the central city and makes sure that everything runs as smoothly as possible, from the weather down to who marries who. Whilst it sounds oppressive, everyone is happy to know their place, and with choice taken away from them they are content. Well, all but one, as The Anarchist has made it his mission to throw The Watchmaker’s world into chaos, to free people even if he has to kill them to do it. Yes, a bit of politics.

Owen Hardy, they realize, is a potential loose cannon, and both factions pull strings unbeknownst to him, pushing him towards one side or the other, convinced he can be an asset. Owen, meanwhile, finds himself veering from his planned path of marriage and apple orchard management, instead going to new lands and cities, witnessing the awe inspiring Clockwork Angels and searching for the legendary Seven Cities Of Gold. It’s never plain sailing, of course, but it is always entertaining. Add to this, if you will, several beautiful illustrations from long time Rush collaborator Hugh Syme and you have a book that will lose much of it's attraction if you get in on ebook.

“Clockwork Angels” is best enjoyed whilst listening to the album (no hardship there), and there’s bonus fun to be had for fans as they spot subtle references to Rush’s back catalogue inserted painlessly into the text. Anderson’s prose is as good as ever, once again proving he is the go to guy if you want an intellectual property expanded on with style and panache. As a story it’s not exactly rocket science, dealing as it does with a pretty standard story structure, but there’s enough imagination in Peart’s vision to allow Anderson to shovel in a good dose of originality in the characters and settings. Basically, if you own the album you really should make an effort to pick up the book, as they make a wonderful set. Even if you hate rock music it’s a good standalone SF novel. If you hate Rush and science fiction, however, then I don’t want to know you and you can just sod off.

Friday, 7 September 2012

DREDD 3D - Film Review

The basic aim of Dredd is simple – it needs to be bold, true to the source material and full of juicy violence, enough to wipe out the memories of the notoriously half assed Stallone attempt of 1995 that threw plenty of money at the screen without bothering to work on anything resembling a decent script.

The character of Judge Dredd, now entering his 35th year in UK comic 2000AD (they know it’s 2012 - don’t ask), isn’t a complicated one. He is, as he is fond of stating, the law. The time is the future, and amidst the wasteland that is America there is a single, massive city with 800 million inhabitants, appropriately called Mega City One. It’s quite the shithole, and the only thing that stands between it and total chaos are the Judges, trained for years to be the ultimate in law enforcement, yet so outnumbered they can only handle 6% of the crimes committed. This, people, is as thin as the blue line gets.

The film is written by long time fan Alex Garland (28 Days later, Sunshine), and has had plenty of input from Dredd’s creator (and still main writer even now) John Wagner. Filmed in South Africa on what passes for a tight budget these days (especially for Sci-Fi), it could be compared to District 9 in terms of the sheer effort put into it, with a result that is similarly impressive although aesthetically miles apart. Director Pete Travis (Endgame) does an excellent job, and between them they have turned in a film that will stand the test of time as a superior, adult action movie.

The premise is reasonably simple, something that works well as an introduction to what is, in the comics at least, a sprawling future world. Dredd is accompanied on patrol by rookie Judge Anderson, very well played by Olivia Thirlby, who is on the verge of failing her final assessment but is being given a second chance because of her powerful, and rare, psi abilities. A routine triple homicide (it’s that sort of city) turns into a siege when they are trapped in a massive tower block by criminal nutjob Ma Ma (Lena Headey) and forced to fight their way out and stop her manufacturing the addictive new drug, Slo Mo. Obviously there’s a bit more to it than that, but this is the basic set up and it works very well indeed, allowing for plenty of violence, some character development and no few explosions.

I can’t write this review without focussing on Karl Urban, who has previously stood out for his excellent turn as Dr McCoy in the Star Trek revival. Not afraid to go through an entire movie with a helmet on, he is spot on as Dredd. He gives us an emotionless machine, a man who cares for nothing but the law, but a man you want to get behind and cheer on as he splats bad guys left right and centre. The humanity comes from Anderson, and it helps that Thirlby doesn’t have to wear a helmet herself, with the handy excuse that it interferes with her psi abilities. Between them they give us the tired old wardog and the 21 year old rookie on the streets for the first time, and you sympathise with the life of a Mega City Judge.

Some people have criticized the apparent similarities between Dredd and the recent film The Raid: Redemption, in which Indonesian cops storm a tower block and much chop sockey ensues. To be honest, I was a little worried myself, but having seen both films I can happily confirm that they are nothing alike. Whilst The Raid is a pretty intense martial arts film which is rather dull between fights (although the fights are awesome), Dredd is a tight film all the way through, with the plot more than an excuse to go from fight to fight.

In conclusion, I can heartily recommend this film, in case you hadn’t guessed. It’s sort of like a cross between Robocop and Die Hard, all moderned up and with better music. It’s no coincidence that those are two of the most kick ass action films ever, and Dredd borrows from the best, although as Robocop stole from Dredd in the first place it’s more like recovering pinched property. The 3D is actually worth shelling out for, and there are some beautiful sequences where it comes into it’s own, whilst the film itself is gritty and dirty, although not without a few lighter moments amidst the carnage. The humour in Dredd’s comic strips comes from the city around him rather than his own actions, and here’s hoping we’ll see Alex Garland penning a sequel that allows us to wander through Dredd’s world. Quite simply a superior action film, and whilst it’s no masterpiece (then again, it’s not supposed to be) it’s as good as fans could ever have hoped. Here’s to the sequels…

Wednesday, 5 September 2012


Jack Reacher is about to become big business. He’s already one of the most popular action heroes in literature, and rightly so, but soon we will get to see the 6 foot 7, battle scarred brick shithouse of an ex Military Policeman played on screen by none other than… Tom Cruise. No, I don’t know either… perhaps he’ll stand on a box all the way through, so good luck with that, fella.

Anyway, regardless of insane Hollywood casting, it’s good to know that the real Reacher, the one in your head, is going strong in this, his 17th outing. For those not in the know, Jack Reacher is one of the good guys. An intriguing man with the brawn and macho appeal of John Wayne mixed with the intellect and general smarts of Sherlock Holmes, Reacher left the army, his home for so many years, and decided to see America. He does that by basically being a drifter, carrying only a toothbrush and a cash card as he wanders from place to place and getting into trouble. He doesn’t start the trouble, mind, but you can be sure he will finish it. A man with a deep sense of justice regardless of the law, he lives by the maxim “I don’t want to put the world to rights, I just don’t like people to put it to wrongs.”

So in this latest book, it’s no surprise that shit happens, and as usual Reacher is right in the middle of it. He hitches a ride from two men and a woman, and soon enough it’s very clear that these people are not what they pretend to be, and it’s just possible that Reacher may have made himself the focus of a manhunt just by being seen with them. Oops! The man just can’t stay away from this sort of thing, and even when he has the chance to walk away, he just has to stick around and make things right, which often involves punching or shooting bad guys and being generally a big old Mr Grumpypants.

“A Wanted Man” will not disappoint Lee Child fans. The central mystery is intriguing and well structured, never straightforward and very hard to second guess (I got close a few times but never hit it on the head). As usual, it shoots along, throwing in plenty of detailed description and odd trivia, with Child’s research and experience with the character making you believe that Reacher is really writing this with Child his nom de plume. As ever, the worst thing about it is that it’s too easy to read, and very soon you’ve raced through the 400+ pages and have to start the long wait for another one. Simply put, in the Jack Reacher books Lee Child has created one of the best literary heroes in popular modern fiction, and everyone should try his books at least once.