Book Review: In Another Country: Selected Stories by David Constantine

In Another Country: Selected StoriesIn Another Country: Selected Stories by David Constantine

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

David Constantine’s short stories in this collection are fascinating. They are full of images and thoughts and they meander across beautiful landscapes while their characters contemplate death and life. I loved several of the stories and the rest, though somewhat opaque to me, were generally thought-provoking, evocative, and beautifully written.

Let me start with my favorites. I picked up the collection specifically for the short story “In Another Country.” I had read an article about how it was loosely based on a tragic true story and was being adapted into a movie titled 45 Years. The idea is immediately compelling: a long, apparently happy marriage is abruptly threatened by news that a body has been found in the ice. What follows is the deterioration of mind and marriage. “In Another Country,” in addition to being a compelling drama, is also a very tense read, somewhat like a thriller or horror even without those trappings.

Constantine doesn’t use quotation marks or separate dialogue into separate lines. He also uses lots of run-on sentences and incomplete sentences. In the stories I enjoyed the most, this didn’t bother me in the slightest. In more opaque stories, I struggled. The effects of these techniques are the frequently disturbing proximity of thought and speech and a blurring between characters. In “In Another Country”, I would say the lack of quotation marks heightens the emotions of the characters and the mood of the story. These are characters who have been married many decades, who can practically finish each other’s thoughts, and are only now confronting something that poses a real danger to their marriage. Their dialogue and the growing madness and the unsettled past blur together in a frightening way. When the cliff of emotions and sanity is finally breached, it’s because of a small but important detail that comes to light. “In Another Country” is an incredible story, masterfully crafted, and well worth the price of this collection.

“The Mermaid” is another favorite of mine. In addition to a strong sense of setting, a compelling domestic drama, and sharply drawn characters, “The Mermaid” stands out because of the metaphors Constantine chooses and the way he brings back objects mentioned earlier that have even greater import later in the story. A nativity scene carved out of pieces of wood stands out in particular. There are many lines I love in this story. Speaking about wreckage the protagonist hopes to salvage from the shore after a storm: “the breakers coming in like friendly hounds with timbers in their mouths.” To describe the loss of his sense of time: “the sky outside either lightening or darkening.” To describe losing himself in his art: “After such work he came into his own house like a stranger.” I found the ending a little strange, and I’m not quite sure what parallels Constantine was working with, but “The Mermaid” really stood out for me.

My cynical mind suggested to me that “Strong Enough to Help” would turn out to be a horror story, but it was really a sweet story about being drawn out of isolation and finding love. I also really enjoyed the darker “Under the Dam” with its vivid descriptions of a viaduct and a dam and complex relationships. And the last story in the collection,”Mr. Carlton”, left me with tears in my eyes and a strong sense of place.

I think the stories that worked best for me were those that really focused on setting and pulled back occasionally from the dialogue and thoughts of the characters. Stories I struggled with were often close to stream of consciousness, ended abruptly after little forward movement, or described people and settings I couldn’t immediately identify with or picture. “Asylum” was one of these. It’s set in a mental asylum but I couldn’t get a good sense of the place and the characters didn’t really have an arc, though I think the end was supposed to be hopeful. “Wishing Well” seems to be tracing the start of new love, but I didn’t really understand the characters or why one in particular was telling the stories she was telling. I couldn’t quite grasp what was important about this story.

In revisiting these stories for this review, I find I appreciate all of them very much, and some I struggled with are beginning to make more sense now that I’ve had some time. Some of the difficulty could be because I’m American and Constantine is a British writer. The relationship between his characters and the landscapes seemed decidedly European to me, though I’m not really sure what I mean. I also think he is making very complex and adult observations about people and their relationships, and perhaps I’m a little too immature and inexperienced to grasp these details.

Reading what is difficult is such a powerful way to learn, though, and I loved the experience of reading this book. There are some books that are fine to give up on (sorry, The Complete Cosmicomics) and there are others that reward you after you struggle with them. I will want to return to “In Another Country” and the others stories someday, to see what they have to say to me then.

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Book and Movie Reviews: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Invasion of the Body SnatchersInvasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s this moment after watching one of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies (there are four and I’ll have more to say about them later on in this review) when I think to myself “I really should read the original novel by Jack Finney.” Well, after watching all four adaptations again recently, I finally read the book, and what a surprise it turned out to be.

You know the story: seed pods from space arrive in a small town on Earth and begin replacing people while they sleep. What surprised me about the 1955 novel was how faithfully it was followed by the 1956 film adaptation starring Kevin McCarthy as Dr. Miles Bennell and Dana Wynter as Becky Driscoll. The first half is essentially the same between novel and film. About halfway through, details and plot points begin to diverge slightly, leading to a different ending. To be honest, the book’s climax seems a little silly, and it’s much less horrifying than the fate of the main characters by the end of the film. The film has its only silliness, in the shape of a framing device tacked on when the studio decided the ending was too dark, but what I view as the film’s real ending is absolutely bone-chilling.

The novel has more room for exposition than the film, and in general this additional information is really interesting. The novel is told in first person by Dr. Miles Bennell, who is even more cheeky and self-centered in the novel than he is in the film. He’s also much more progressive in the novel, which I didn’t expect from a male character created in the 1950s. Dr. Bennell makes particularly incisive observations related to race and gender. The novel cannot avoid all stereotypes, though. Becky Driscoll is primarily a passive and emotional damsel in distress, but there are several great moments in the novel when she becomes much more active and heroic, including coming up with a particularly great escape plan from a seemingly impossible situation.

The pod people plot from the movies is one of my favorite delicious terrors from horror and that creepiness and consistently frightening progression is definitely there in the original novel. The only thing that really disappointed me about the novel was the ending. The film adaptions tend to lean toward darker endings and more ambiguity. They make me feel like the horror has only just begun. The book’s ending instead is lighter and conclusive. It just doesn’t pack the same punch. Until then, though, the book is genuinely creepy and frightening.

The first three of the four movies based on the novel are some of my favorite movies of all time. They work because they capture the fears of their time. The 1956 film directed by Don Siegel is perhaps the best, and the fear it evokes with its seed pods and pod people is the fear of communism, in which your neighbor might turn out to be a communist plotting against America. As I mentioned, the ending gets really dark, though the framing device undercuts this. All of the actors are fantastic, and there is a scene with McCarthy and Wynter near the end of the movie that is one of the great chillers of all time.  The film is a masterpiece of paranoia, the practical effects are still amazing, and the chase scenes are much more frightening on the screen than they are in the book.

The second adaption arrived in 1978, directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Brooke Adams and Donald Sutherland as the leads. They are joined by a great cast, including Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy, and Jeff Goldblum, as well as a fun cameo by Kevin McCarthy from the original movie. The fear of the 1970s seems to be of pop psychology and the effects drugs like Xanax prescribed for anxiety and depression have on emotions. The 1978 film doubles down on the special effects and paranoia, and the scream-screech of the aliens when they spot humans will always be frightening to me. The film departs from the novel in many ways and changes the characters quite radically, but it retains the paranoia and creepiness.

The third adaptation from 1993, Body Snatchers, was directed by Abel Ferrara and stars Gabrielle Anwar, Meg Tilly, Terry Kinney, Billy Wirth and Forest Whitaker. The movie departs from the novel in many ways. The protagonist here is a teenage girl dragged to a military base by her father, an Environmental Protection Agency agent investigating the impact of the base on the local environment. The fears of the early 1990s seem to be of the military, stepparents, and the environment impact of humans. While the plot is simplified quite a bit compared to the earlier movies and the novel, what elevates the movie in my opinion is just how frightening it becomes. Making the protagonist a young woman and part of a family with a stepmother and half-brother leads to truly horrific moments that make me jump in my seat every time I see them. Meg Tilly is frightening as hell, especially during a monologue in which she asks “Where are you going to go?”

One great novel, three great movies. And then there’s 2007’s The Invasion, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig as gender-reversed versions of the novel’s protagonists. This movie is terrible! The fear of the Aughts seems to be of pandemics and bodily fluids. The invasion spreads by vomiting on other people; it’s even grosser on screen than it sounds. There are no pods, just gross skin effects. No other fears are that well developed. Veronica Cartwright is always great, but her cameo here is wasted. The movie isn’t all that frightening, there aren’t any particularly captivating or scary scenes, and the talents of all of the actors are completely wasted. Unlike the earlier movies, The Invasion doesn’t really seem to have much to say. It doesn’t offer any compelling parallels to the contemporary world. It just seems to exist as an exercise to distill the novel to the very basics; it fails miserably.

But three great movies out of four is an incredible track record for any franchise. I think this rate of success is the result of Jack Finney coming up with a timeless and frightening plot particularly worthy of film adaptation. It’s one novel I think should be adapted about once every decade, because pod people are a great device for reflecting on our changing times and fears. What would an Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie look like today, in 2017?

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Magazine Review: Asimov’s Science Fiction August 2016

Asimov's Science Fiction, August 2016,Asimov’s Science Fiction, August 2016, by Sheila Williams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The August 2016 (I’m a little behind) issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction is a really good collection of stories, poems, and essays.

The essays include “Discovering Women of Wonder” by editor Sheila Williams, “The Software of Magic” by Robert Silverberg, “Thinking About Dinosaurs” by James Patrick Kelly, and “On Books” by Paul Di Filippo. All of them are fascinating and I’ve now got a huge list of new books I want to read.

The poetry was a little less interesting to me, a little too cute and a little too focused on science in poetic form rather than being poetry of the science fiction genre. “On the Death of Classical Physics” by Michael Meyerhofer nicely jumps scale from trees to the quantum world before being domesticated, in my opinion, by nevertheless interesting observations about the rigors and stress of daily life. “Your Clone Excels at You” by Robert Frazier has an imaginative form that leads to a too-clever, in my opinion, final line that I’m not sure achieves the poem’s aims. “SETI” by Andrew Paul Wood is nicely yearning but the poetry of it didn’t really, in my opinion, add anything to the questions asked. “The Martian Air Merchants” by Ken Poyner also makes me wonder what is gained by positioning these facts and questions in poetic form. But perhaps I’m being too harsh; I’ve been spoiled by my recent exposure to some of the poetry I’ve read in association with the Science Fiction Poetry Association, where the craft of poetry is always top-notch and science fiction and fantasy are just different genres poetry can explore. That is, I seem to prefer what’s important to poets writing the poetry collected by SFPA to what the poets emphasize in this issue of Asimov’s. Feel free to ignore my ramblings.

I’m much more comfortable in recommending the many great short stories and novelettes in this issue. “Wakers” by Sean Monaghan is about unlucky colonists awakened from hibernation on board a starship after an accident makes it impossible to reach their destination exoplanet. The latest person helping the ship’s damaged A.I. has gotten old and he needs to awaken someone else to replace him. That’s a tough choice to make for someone. The relationship between him and the A.I. and the expectations he has about who he wakes up next are really fascinating. The story takes a turn that was unexpected and a little opaque to me but it explores ethical dilemmas that I hadn’t realized I held positions on until the final choices of the story are made.

“Toppers” by Jason Sanford has secondary world fantasy tendencies despite it’s hard science fiction premise, and I really enjoyed it. Time and journeys are involved and they nicely loop in satisfying ways throughout the story.

“The Mutants Men Don’t See” by James Alan Gardner is one of my favorites in this issue. It has superheroes, the inception of superheroes (one of my favorite things about the genre), danger, angst, and surprise, with a wonderfully satisfying turn I didn’t see coming.

“Kit: Some Assembly Required” by Kathe Koja & Carter Scholz is another favorite. I did not expect one of my favorite playwrights, Christopher Marlowe, to show up in a story about an emergent A.I. That history, Doctor Faustus, and A.I. should combine in such wondrous fashion seems like a miracle, but really demonstrates the creativity and talent of the authors. The final line gives me chills. If you are a fan of Doctor Faustus and the subversive way Marlowe crafts his anti-hero, then you are in for a treat.

“Patience Lake” by Matthew Claxton is straight-up bad-ass science fiction western and it might remind you of Cormac McCarthy’s work and noir fiction. In a dystopian future of bionic people struggling to survive, Casey Kim, former military, badly mutilated in a chemical attack and now outwardly more machine than man, just wants to make it to a town where there might be work for him. A request for water leads to friendship and then much worse. The story is bleak, the characters are sharply drawn, the world is vivid, and oh my goodness that ending.

“Kairos” by Sieren Damsgaard Ernst challenged me in ways I didn’t expect. I happen to be hopeful for radical life extension someday, but Ernst’s protagonist takes a decidedly dim view of the prospect soon after her second husband tells her that he and his research company have developed the technology and he wants her to join him as one of the first immortals. What follows is her grappling with the prospect while visiting Aachen, Germany and remembering her first husband. I was absolutely fascinated by the character’s process of thinking through her issues with life extension and her husband’s request. At the end she approaches the issue in her own unique way and it leads to some really fascinating and unexpected if open-ended final thoughts. I’m really happy I stayed with the story and it gave me a lot to think about concerning my own rationale for immortality.

“President John F. Kennedy, Astronaut” by Sandra McDonald was both what I expected and not what I expected. He is indeed an astronaut in this story, there is some alternative history at play, but the main protagonists are other characters on their own unique journey. The story is a little silly, funny, a lot of fun, and leads to a satisfying and hopeful ending.

All in all, the August 2016 issue of Asimov’s is very enjoyable with some particularly well-done stories.

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Short Story Review: The Price of Oranges by Nancy Kress

The Price Of Oranges [Short Story Hardback #33]The Price Of Oranges [Short Story Hardback #33] by Nancy Kress
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my absolute favorite short stories. I’ve read “The Price of Oranges” many times, but I always seem to forget how it ends, making each new read a magical, emotional experience all over again. Nancy Kress always creates characters that jump off the page, and Harry and Manny, and Jackie and Robert and Ann, are some of my favorites.

Harry’s worried that his granddaughter Jackie is miserable, so he seeks out a young man that might show her that things are not all gloom and despair. He’s not going to look for this dream guy in the present, though. And if you think maybe Harry is overstepping and being a little patriarchal, you’d be right. Things don’t turn out like he expects at all.

Funny, magical, heartbreaking, and full of great food purchased surprisingly cheaply, “The Price of Oranges” is classic Nancy Kress.

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Short Story Review: Dancing on Air by Nancy Kress

Dancing On Air Book cover
“Dancing On Air” book cover

Dancing on Air by Nancy Kress

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bio-enhanced ballerinas and dogs. Mothers and daughters. The price of passion. This powerful short story is a must-read.

In “Dancing on Air”, Nancy Kress explores the consequences of bio-enhancement but does not provide easy answers as the reader is drawn into the tumultuous lives of several characters within and orbiting the New York City Ballet. The story reminds me a little of the movie Black Swan and the lengths people will go for their art. This story, though, takes place slightly in the future, in a world of rapid, unfettered progress in genetics and biotech reshaping the very notions of what it means to be human, and to follow art. It also frequently provides the point of view of the bio-enhanced talking Doberman named Angel, commissioned to protect the company’s top star after the murder of ballerinas. A reporter whose teenage daughter is obsessed with being asked to join the Company begins to uncover and untangle the various motivations and machinations of the ballerinas, their mothers, the Artistic Director, and the bio-enhancement industry itself.

Kress’s prose is sharp, concise, and devastating. Obviously I’m a huge fan of her work; Kress’s stories never fail to blow my mind.

Highly recommended.

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Movie Review: Beyond the Gates (2016)

Beyond the Gates movie poster
Beyond the Gates movie poster

Beyond the Gates (2016), directed by Jackson Stewart, written by Jackson Stewart and Stephen Scarlata

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beyond the Gates is one of those slow-burn horror films that may bore some viewers but the nostalgia and character building are going to make fans of the rest. Barbara Crampton makes a great but frightening VHS guide to another world who is not to be crossed. Graham Skipper and Chase Williamson are great as mumblecore brothers trying to return to childhood camaraderie. Brea Grant is fantastic as the older brother’s girlfriend caught up with the horror unleashed when they play the last VHS tape their dad played in the back office of his video store before he mysteriously disappeared. If you like neon violet back-lighting, unexpected visitors, and 1980’s practical-effect gore, then this movie might be for you!