I’m a member of a film club at my local library, and when it came to my turn to present a film I went with Alex Cox’s Bill the Galactic Hero. This is my introduction to the film, or at least the one I wrote before I went off script and started rambling, followed by the film itself (as uploaded by Cox himself on to Vimeo):
(Edited to add: the film itself is mildly NSFW due to some animated blue alien nudity in the very first scene. Thought I better mention that.)
British director Alex Cox made a splash with his first two films, Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, in the 1980s, but for film fans of a certain age he’s known less for his directing as he is as presenter of BBC2’s cult film strand Moviedrome.
It was through Moviedrome that I first saw films as diverse as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Django, Carnival of Souls, Solaris, Manhunter and Les Diaboliques. But overall its Cox’s short intros, with his laconic manner and twangy mid Atlanticised Liverpool accent, that are most memorable.
So… when after a patchy film career of increasing obscurity and decreasing budgets Cox re-emerged in 2013 to kickstart a new movie, the campaign launched with a Moviedrome-style to camera video, it seemed only fair I should pay him back for my movie education by backing this new film.
Blame me for what you are about to see. I helped make it happen.
Tonight’s film is Bill the Galactic Hero, based on the novel by Harry Harrison, adapted into a screenplay by Cox, rejected by movie studios for nearly thirty years, and eventually made as a $100,000 student film co-directed, starring and staffed by students on the film programme at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Cox has described it as the largest student film ever made, and I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s certainly one of the most ambitious. Bill the Galactic Hero is the story of a pizza delivery guy who is duped into joining up with the Space Troopers in their pointless and destructive space war against a race of lizards called The Chingers, though his real enemy proves to be the bureaucracy, stupidity and brutality of the war machine he is a part of. There are spaceships, alien planets and robots.
As a student film there are rough edges. The camera crew are frequently visible, reflected in space helmets. The secondary performances and sound mix are variable, and I don’t really think the animated prologue and epilogue are all that great.
But the core of the film really works. The black and white photography, and the use of spacesuits and gas masks, create a nightmarish sense of disconnection as Bill is pushed around by forces much bigger than himself and driven to his wit’s end. The unpolished student cast suit a story about conscripts in a war suffering massive casualties and rapid turnover. The use of redressed real locations is charmingly reminiscent of cheap SF of the past, from the B movies to the BBC, and the model shots and computer generated visual effects are ingenious and imaginative.
It’s a weird, scrappy film, but a very individual one. Cox’s anti-war sensibility and weird humour chimes with that of the book, which was based on Harrison’s experiences in World War II. It’s not surprising that studios turned down such an eccentric and downbeat project, but I’m glad that crowdfunding and the possibilities of digital technology allow for films like this to be made.
Cox has gone back to the crowdfunding model for Tombstone Rashomon, an episodic western showing the Gunfight at the OK Corrall from different perspectives, currently in production.
He clearly thought Bill the Galactic Hero worked out OK.
You can now judge for yourselves…
So, while talking about the last series of Line of Duty I had an idea for some badges, which I eventually had made up and posted to a couple of friends, including Eddie Robson who took this pic:
I also sent some to the series production office, as it seemed only fair:
They seemed to like them. In the replies, quite a few other people would like similar badges.
So, for anyone who wants one, here’s the image I very crudely made up in Paint and Open Office, for you to pop into the design tool of whatever online badge provider you prefer (I used Camaloon, who were very good.):
I know that as a writer I’m supposed to be a constant cheerleader for books and literacy and libraries, but there’s a part of me that always kicks against that sort of thing. I’m always quite self-conscious that there’s a great degree of self interest in these things, the pinch of salt that should be taken when someone advocates for the industry they work in. Of course we want you to buy and borrow our books, and those of our friends, who may notice the attention and reflect it back our way.
That might be a bit cynical. But that’s the other thing – the more time I spend writing and working with words, the more anything connected to them begins to feel like part of the work-grind. It can be hard to capture an upbeat readerly enthusiasm after staring blankly at a word processor all day.
Which isn’t terribly healthy unless you want to slide into a Marenghi-esque state of writing more books than you read, so I’ve been trying to find time to get away from screens and read more, including taking a month off to do some reading after my last big deadline.
These are the last seven books I read. You can probably guess the last one:
Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky
Post-apocalyptic Russian SF, apparently originally written online by a young author. There’s a certain looseness indicative of the book’s origins as a rambling web-screed, oddities and dead ends in the plot, but for the most part, either through sheer talent or the work of editors and translators to bash the original text into shape, the end product really feels like a coherent novel. It’s the kind of world-building I’m a sucker for, a densely imagined world of warring factions in the tunnels beneath a devastated Moscow, and the weird mystical and philosophical elements push the book outside of the genre comfort zone of resource banditry and radiation counters.
Years ago when I reviewed the game of the same name, I said I’d probably prefer to read the book, so never let it be said that I don’t occasionally follow through on my intentions. I also picked up the sequel, Metro 2034, recently, which is an indication of how much I enjoyed this initial outing.
Don’t Point That Thing At Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli
Remember Mortdecai, the Jonny Depp movie that was last year’s first big Box Office disaster, and was promptly dumped on Netflix by the autumn? Well, it’s existence prompted me to pick up the first novel the film was based on, just out of sheer perverse fascination, and it’s actually a very entertaining read, with caveats.
(I actually liked the film too, but that’s another story.)
Charlie Mortdecai and Jock are essentially a corrupted Bertie Wooster and Jeeves bouncing from disaster to disaster in a world of thuggish cops and elaborate art world cons, and how you react to their exploits depends very much on how you react to the louche, seedy tone of Charlie’s narration. Bonfiglioli is clearly riffing on Wodehouse, and there’s a similar humour but also callousness, crudity, brutality and plenty to offend. They’re a product of their age, and while that means some of the words and sentiments within can be distasteful, it also means the book is blissfully short and well-paced, a welcome alternative to bloated modern thrillers. Nasty fun, and yet again another series where I’ve picked up the next instalment.
Tomorrow Never Knows by Eddie Robson
Eddie’s a good friend of mine and sent me a copy of his first novel, so don’t consider this a review because I’m completely biased. Suffice to say this is exactly in my wheelhouse, SF that’s strong on character and worldbuilding that builds everyday lives and environments rather than focusing on the military or other crusading outliers. There’s more than a touch of Douglas Coupland in the way Eddie’s mostly young, disaffected characters intersect and go about their business, and a similar lightness of touch to the prose. Tomorrow Never Knows is an easy read but an intelligent one, and as the plotlines come together towards the end it develops a real page-turning momentum.
But don’t trust me on that.
Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto
Speaking of lightness, Banana Yoshimoto writes about heavy emotions with a lightness that I always enjoy and appreciate. Her stories are often about grief or loneliness but are never depressing, instead gracefully moving from one perfectly made observation to the next. As with the other books of Yoshimoto’s I’ve read, the plot here is a whole lot of domestic nothing, a young woman reaching towards adulthood, moving away from the seaside town in which she was raised then going back for one last summer. There’s a sick relative, some economic uncertainty, arrivals and departures. What matters here is the lead protagonist’s thoughtful inner life and observations on her family and friends, and the pleasant melancholy of time passing and being aware of it. Don’t worry about finding this novel in particular, just look for Yoshimoto’s work and pick up the first one you see. They’re all very good.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Now a TV series on SyFy, though it hasn’t turned up in the UK yet. In terms of high concept pitches, this is basically Harry Potter in the style of Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ with a big dose of Narnia and a dash of Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’. Focus in on those first two and there’s a high concept to die for, a school for magicians in upstate New York inhabited by the kind of laidback aesthetes that made Tartt’s campus thriller such an infuriatingly compulsive read, although Grossman’s characters are nowhere near as vile or snobbish – there’s no central crime here, and outsider Quentin Coldwater is welcomed into the magical academic community without any need for pretending he’s higher born than he is. Threats come from within and without, and Grossman is strong on both the logic of the magical world, and the more epic and whimsical fantasy that kicks off later on in the book. Really entertaining stuff and I can see why it got picked up for TV. Someone tell me when it’s on.
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick
Another TV related pick. I’ve only seen the pilot of the Amazon series, but I wanted to read the novel before embarking on the rest. I’ve never read Dick, only knowing him from the films of his work and his reputation. While this 1963 novel has some moments of disorienting trippiness as characters lose their grip – the kind of stuff I expected from the movies of ‘A Scanner Darkly’ etc – it wasn’t really these head-messing moments that impressed me so much as the detailed social interactions and internal responses of characters living in a world where, thanks to the Axis powers winning the second world war, racism in its various forms is the global, respectable norm and informs everything, corrupting every thought. It’s a brilliantly envisioned world, and one which has one of the best examples of Chekhov’s Gun I’ve read.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Finally, last year’s Booker winner, and a birthday present that I tore through in a month, its 700 pages passing by swiftly. The most serious and heaviest – in all senses – of the books I’ve listed here, James’ novel covers twenty five years of Jamaican crime at home and, later, abroad. Most of the characters are heavily fictionalised which allows James’ imagination to cut loose in their voices, with chapters of dense inner monologue and flowing dialogue from a large cast of characters. These voices are strong and diverse, and the differences between them and their changes over time are indicated by complex and subtle uses of slang and grammar.
Quotes on the cover compare the book to Tarantino but the 90s cult figure James reminded me more was Irvine Welsh – there’s a similar willingness to dive into the confused mindsets and precise diction of troubled, often addled characters, and James digs deep where Tarantino would show off. The exploration of poverty and crime reminded me of ‘City of God’, that sense of lightly skipping back and forth through history, the combination of wit and horror, with characters who can dole out both. Where James rises above all these comparisons is that, while he sympathises for all his characters, he doesn’t mythologise their crimes and vices above all else. Ultimately it’s the consequences and trauma caused by crime and violence that linger that live on in the reader’s thoughts rather than the acts themselves.
It’s a great novel, and a very novelistic novel, doing what novels do better than anything, digging into the psyches of its characters, turning thoughts to words in a way that creates the illusion of mental connection between characters and reader.
I wanted to re-enthuse myself about the medium. Job done.
I did a little Black Library story recently, for a Deathwatch project that turned out to be the tie-in story collection for the Deathwatch: Overkill boxed game. My story is ‘The Known Unknown’ and involves Jensus Natorian, a Blood Raven Librarian with serious mentor issues. I think it turned out really well.
You can buy either the story as a standalone ebook or the whole collection, Deathwatch: Ignition in either ebook form or hardback. I haven’t read any of the other stories (or seen the game – one of the interesting things about a job like this or the Fellguard stories is working from a brief that’s perhaps a page or two of notes), but there’s some good people in there like Braden Campbell (whose Dark Eldar story in Fear the Alien was great) and Doctor Who books alum Steve Lyons.
Not sure what the book’s distribution will be outside hobby shops but you can get it either from your local Games Workshop or via the website:
One more Black Library thing due from me, if the stars align. Later about that.
Off social media at the moment to get some work done, so instead I’ll link to HachiSnax’s review of Hollow Beginnings right here.
When writing for a big line with a lot of output it can sometimes feel like your work is getting lost in the deluge, so it’s always appreciated when someone pays attention.
I introduced Anvindr Godrichsson and his pack of Space Wolves in the short story In Hrondir’s Tomb three years ago, in Black Library’s emagazine Hammer and Bolter. As part of Black Library’s annual Summer of Reading campaign, where they release a new piece of fiction every weekday, that story has now been re-released as a standalone ebook. If you didn’t buy it in the original issue of H&B, or in the H&B Year Two e-compilation, or in the print Best of Hammer & Bolter volume 2… well, here’s another chance.
As part of the same campaign Anvindr and his pack return, some years later, in Hollow Beginnings. If the previous story hinted where I’ve been going with these characters, then this one outright states it. The title’s a bit of a giveaway.
I like writing Anvindr. As a Space Wolf he sees himself and his pack as legendary warriors engaged in a mythic battle, and being a Space Marine he’s pretty much right. But there are many ways to fight a war, especially a war for the survival of humanity, and Anvindr experiences a constant unease when dealing with branches of the Imperium with less honourable tactics than the Wolves. It’s the tension between his loyalty to the Emperor and his dislike of some of the Emperor’s other servants that makes him fun to write.
Speaking of which, I’ve been quiet for a while on here, and will probably be quiet for a while longer. We’ve had the Beginnings, now someone needs to finish the Rest Of.
New standalone eshort version of In Hrondir’s Tomb can be bought for £2.49 here.
Follow up eshort Hollow Beginnings can be bought for £2.49 here.
I’m getting a PS4 for Christmas. Lovely news, but it means one of the boxes under the TV needs to go away to make space. As it’s been threatening to red ring for most of the year, I decided to mothball the 360. While this is actually my third 360 – I’ve had one new one, an ancient second hand one given to me by Family Gamer TV maestro Andy, and another second hand one I got to replace THAT when it keeled over – the platform has been my main gaming format for well over half a decade. So it’s kind of a big deal to move on to all-Sony consoles.
First I had to wrap up some unplayed games. I played LA Noire, and fell through the bottom of the universe one time:
I also played Dishonored, tried Far Cry 2 but gave up after a bit, similarly played various review copies I’d given up on midway through until I got bored and gave up for good. Then I threw myself into Fallout New Vegas, where amongst many of the virulent bugs that survived countless patches, a corpse floated to the ceiling:
I enjoyed New Vegas, but it wasn’t Fallout 3. It lacked the devastated urban splendour of that game, even though it was technically bigger – seeing a desert turned into a wasteland isn’t as much of a transformation as Washington DC laid low. So before the 360 got boxed up for good, I decided to do a quick tour of the Mall and some other fondly remembered locations, meet some people and shoot some Super Mutants.
Oh, and I found a floating hammer:
Goodbye Capital Wasteland, you charmingly desolate hellhole, and goodbye buggy old 360.
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, here are the badly formatted, uncropped and oversized pics.
I’ve read some comics so apparently that makes me an expert. The two corrections I’ve had to issue in the
comics comments *might* be considered to undermine that:
Oh, and let’s just stick the Infinity Spider-Man Playset one here too, rather than expend another post on this stuff:
Second of my Family Gamer TV videos. You can now find a playlist of these in the links bar to the right.