Book review: The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke

the_city_and_the_stars.pngIn case you’re wondering how I decide which book to read next, it’s usually just a random stab on the internet. If it’s got a interesting cover, proper punctuation and decent typesetting then I’ll give it a go. Oh, and if the Guardian doesn’t like it then there’s a fairly good chance I will.

The City and the Stars falls into the interesting cover category, and it is also part of the SF Masterworks set, and that alone means it probably won’t disappoint. The book (written by the late SF demi-god Arthur C. Clarke) falls into what I call extreme Science Fiction: pushing the boundary to pretty much the end of everything. Another book in the same vein was the weighty but brilliant Seveneaves, a book that looks at what mankind will become five thousand years from now. Clarke takes it a wee bit further.

The City in question is Diaspar (a name uncomfortably close to the word despair), the last city on the desert planet Earth… a few billion years in the future. The population is content, if not happy, being able to conjure anything they need from thin air and having, after a fashion, overcome the inconvenient business of death. Well, not everyone is happy; one person in particular, Alvin, can’t settle with the idea that he’ll live for a thousand years, then after being stored in a computer for a few centuries, he’ll be reborn to do the same thing again for another thousand years. No, for Alvin, this will never do, so he decides to leave Diaspar and look for something beyond…

The genius of this book is that it’s entertaining, and at the same time, a little bit depressing. As I read it, I was thinking, ‘Jeez, is that it? Billions of years into the future and we’re still pretty much alone?’ I’ve always had a hankering to look at mundane speculative fiction: the idea that in the far future, we’re still alone and in the scheme of things, not much has changed. I think the City and the Stars fits the bill while still being a very absorbing page turner. The viewpoint is a close-in omniscient one, with Clarke jumping quite cleanly from character to character, reading his mind and then jumping out. It’s pretty seamless, and it’s rare to see it done this well. The dialogue is workable, but nothing to really write home about, but the sense of place you get from Clarke’s writing is stunning. Yes, the city of Diaspar is perfect, in a clinical, computer-generated sort of way, and although it’s large enough to hold ten million people, there’s this overriding sense of claustrophobia, especially when you’re following Alvin on his quest. The prose is somewhat stark which again lends itself well to the sterile, unchanging nature of the environment.

Not a cheery read, but very difficult to put down nonetheless.

Eight out of ten.

 

TV Review: Stan Lee’s Lucky Man

I don’t usually review tv shows based on one episode. I think it’s a little unfair to jump straight in without giving them time to ‘bed in’. I went straight ahead with Lucky Man though; after episode 1, I think Sky TV might be on to a winner. It’s from the same genius who brought you comic characters such as the Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four (though that doesn’t mean we should blame him for the FF’s last outing, which was a train wreck), so it has a good solid ideas man behind it. Surprisingly, it’s not your run-of-the-mill superhero thing… well, I don’t think it is anyway.

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Our hero (and I use the term loosely) is a Harry Clayton, a sub-par London police detective with a failed marriage behind him and a gambling habit still way out in front. While investigating the murder of the man to whom he owes most of his gambling debt, Harry chances upon an ancient bracelet that endows its wearer with the luck of the gods. For a roulette addict things can’t get much better, except for the fact that one of the bracelet’s previous owners threw himself off a high roof… Doesn’t sound all that lucky to me.

Episode 1 was a blinder. The script was fresh, the acting superb (stellar performances from James Nesbitt and Eve Best (who I last saw in the final episode of Nurse Jackie), and most importantly, it didn’t take itself too seriously. I think the problem with a lot of the super hero stuff running on Sky (Green Arrow, The Flash) is that they’re really not much fun. I don’t this is going to be the case with Lucky Man.

For the first episode, a very creditable eight out of ten.

 

Film review – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

I’m one of the Hunger Games’ unlikely fans: I didn’t think I’d like it, but the first two were brilliant (we should see more of Donald Sutherland). Mockingjay Part 1 was okay (kind of), and having seen Part 2, I’m pretty sure that’s where they should have stopped at Part 1

Yes, it was beautifully shot: the actions scenes were real edge-of-your-seat stuff, and the sets were breathtaking. The acting didn’t disappoint (no one’s going to win an oscar, but the performances were creditable).

So, my only real problem was with the movie itself: what was the point? Aside from the obvious (to make the studios a big pot of money), I struggled to see what they were aiming for. I had a similar problem with the Fantastic Four, except that film had been cut to fit into ninety minutes, Mockingjay 2 had been stretched to cover two and a half hours.

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There was an awful lot of travelling about; a lot deep, meaningless conversations in rooms alternating between pitch black and blazingly lit; the heroine wandered back and forth between home and the frontline while sighing and gazing into the middle distance… I started wondering if this could have all been wrapped up in Mockingjay Part 1 with a bit of judicious editing. Maybe not, but there certainly wasn’t enough here for two and half hours.  I guess that the studio (quite rightly) wanted to feel that the audience was getting its money’s worth; I’m just not sure this was the way to do it.

Still, if you’re a Hunger Games fan then you’re going to see it to find out what happens, and so you should. (Just don’t worry too much if you show up late). There are a few interesting twists along the way, though you won’t be hard pressed to see them coming, and as I said, Donald Sutherland was manically brilliant.

Five out of ten.

 

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