With all the fuss over the Oscars, I felt driven somehow to point you at some things I've seen over the last year which I think, in most cases, are better than the current contenders (the Oscars are actually over at the time of writing this, but I still don't know who the winners are). To be clear - I liked Argo, but I don't think it's the best movie of the year. Django Unchained was, I thought, a return to form for Tarantino, although I think he had about two movies worth of material in a single work - enough so he might have been better going down the same route he did with Kill Bill 1 & 2. I also enjoyed Zero Dark Thirty, and thought it a clever, smart movie that in no way remotely condones torture - rather the opposite, in fact. I haven't, unfortunately, seen Lincoln, although from what I've seen and heard both it and its lead actor deserve their nominations.

But there are always movies that I am surprised to find are not even nominated. Here's the one that particularly struck me as glaring omissions:

The Hunter - based on a novel by Julia Leigh, starring Willem Dafoe as a man sent by a biotech company to find and kill the last Tasmanian tiger so they can benefit from unique properties inherent in the creature's biochemistry (essentially, they want to develop a powerful nerve agent). This is one of those man-against-nature and man-against-man movies. It's powerful and gripping and reminds me why Dafoe is such a superb actor. Definitely one of my movies of the year.

A Royal Affair - this is based on a true story. IMDB says: "In 1767, the British Princess Caroline is betrothed to the mad King Christian VII of Denmark, but her life with the erratic monarch in the oppressive country becomes an isolating misery. However, Christian soon gains a fast companion with the German Dr. Johann Struensee, a quietly idealistic man of the Enlightenment. As the only one who can influence the King, Struensee is able to begin sweeping enlightened reforms of Denmark through Christian even as Caroline falls for the doctor. However, their secret affair proves a tragic mistake that their conservative enemies use to their advantage in a conflict that threatens to claim more than just the lovers as their victims."

What's remarkable about this Danish film is that it feels weirdly science-fictional. Both Caroline and Struensee (played by the same chap who appeared as le Chiffre in Casino Royale) are effectively airdropped into a society considerably more backwards than their own, so that they almost feel like time travelers from the present lost in a scarcely post-medieval society - but with the unique privilege of being able to change it.

Finally, I'd recommend The Sessions - also based on a true story: "At the age of 38, Mark O'Brien, a man who uses an iron lung, decides he no longer wishes to be a virgin. With the help of his therapist and his priest, he contacts Cheryl Cohen-Greene, a professional sex surrogate and a typical soccer mom with a house, a mortgage and a husband. Inspired by a true story, The Surrogate, follows the fascinating relationship which evolves between Cheryl and Mark as she takes him on his journey to manhood."

In summary like that, it sounds like some kind of American Pie affair, but it's really, really not. It's way smarter and cleverer than that. O'Brien was a noted poet, with several books of his work out, despite being completely immobilised from youth. And it shows, through the dialogue and his interactions with the people and the women around him, and it's hardly surprising, if this movie is anything to judge by (and assuming it's an accurate portrayal of his life) that so many women ended up falling in love with him.

So there you go: three recommendations from me.


New 'Brain in a Jar' release

It's been a while since the last release, but here it is: Cowboy Saints and Other Lost Wonders, by Phil Raines and Harvey Welles.

(that's the Amazon UK link. Here's the link for Amazon US.)

A few words about Phil and Harvey. They've been writing together for at least twenty years, and in that time have managed to quietly steal their way into several Year's Best anthologies as well as being published in a variety of publications well-known to most of you reading this blog, particularly Interzone, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and Albedo One. Some of the stories herein contained have also appeared in Year's Best SF and Fantasy collections, as well as being listed in 'recommended reading' annual retrospectives by the likes of Locus magazine.

Here's a small taster of what you might find inside, in the form of Hal Duncan's introduction, Plastic Hippos for Feet.

(At the moment I'm considering putting together a freebie sampler of stories and articles from previous Brain in a Jar publications. Watch this space.)

Plastic Hippos for Feet
Hal Duncan

Part of me wants to start this intro with a personal story, an anecdote of An Adventure With Phil, involving a miniature sarcophagus with plastic hippos for feet and a shovel hidden in a banjo case for a trip through town in the dead of night. Or the story of an abandoned railway tunnel aglow with hundreds of tea-lights. Or of statues of Teutonic knights gifted with golden eye-shadow and lip gloss. More. Part of me wants to sketch in a half dozen illustrations of the imaginative spirit behind the stories you’re about to read – or one of the imaginative spirits at least – as if to say: See, knowing this, now you get where all the weirdness is coming from, don’t you? It makes sense now, right?

But such truth would be a lie, I reckon, an explaining-away. Better, more honest, I think, to offer just the images, a few real-world lost wonders as hints of what’s to come, to leave it to you to piece something together from, say, a shovel in a banjo case and a sarcophagus with plastic hippos for feet – oh, and a coin, a condom, a toy cow, an invitation, a map. Make of that what you will.

A little enigma seems apt here, after all. See, I’ve known Phil Raines for some twenty years now, it must be, as a member of the Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle and as a good friend. But, to coin a term, I’ve unknown his writing partner, Harvey Welles, for about the same period – Harvey, the ever-present, ever-absent other half across the Pond, there in the fiction but hidden behind it, Harvey, somewhere in Milwaukee, happily working away on their collaborations but having nothing to do with the kerfuffle after creation. I’ve never met the Gilbert (or George?) of this literary Gilbert & George. He’s as much of a mystery to me as Phil is a mate, as elusive as his invisible lagomorphic namesake. So even if I might illuminate a little of the force behind the fiction with a tale or two of Phil’s eccentric “projects,” there’d still be this... negative space where what you really need to know is Harvey’s quirks and foibles.

But that too seems apt: if one thing marks out the stories in this collection, it’s a sense of mystery at their hearts. One shouldn’t be misled by the “Wonders” in the subtitle; the “Lost” in there is crucial. These aren’t tales of the merely marvellous – nerd-raptures of brassy SF/F conceits conjured to inspire the gosh-wow sensawunda where “What if” is really “Wouldn’t it be awesome if?” Oh, here and there you’ll find a trope like teleportation on whim – Bester’s jaunting specifically referenced indeed – but the actualisation of desire is too thematic to simply be performed as textual spectacle. Lost wonders are wonders out of reach, not the Fisher Price doohickeys in the genre sandpit.

For sure, the wondrous is right there in many of these stories, but it comes not from gadgetry and gimcrack tropes but in the actualities of the communion of the mosh pit, or of “that fado that can blur the boundary between listener and music and blot the world out for a moment,” or in the notion of “a perfect song. God plays it once on the carrier, produces the part and the string dissolves into noise. Never to be repeated.” Which is to say it’s something deeper than the marvellous we’re concerned with in these stories. The where and how of those Portuguese sad songs being made manifest in the world, in the story titled simply after the mode itself, “Fado,” is certainly as fantastical a conceit as you can get... but the marvellous? No. Here we’re talking about the sublime.

(The marvellous: gosh wow! The sublime: holy fuck! That’s the difference, in case you’re wondering.)
So, in the title story of the collection we get an image of that sublime, of “the light at sunset, a sky big enough for the light to spread, a desert ridge to give it a bright cutting edge, and the face of a cowboy saint to give it focus –” It’s an honest awe in the face of the real and natural cosmos we’re being given, the expanse of empty desert and vast heavens above, an edge of rock slicing into us, invoking a wonder for beyond the Technicolor and Cinemascope of SF/F’s silver screen SFX.

And yet...

And yet, this is where it gets gnarly, because I can’t help but note how that sublime light is being captured in (mediated by?) reflection upon something at once gaudier and more homely. I mean, this cowboy saint is there to give the light focus. And whatever a cowboy saint might be – as the character himself imagining this vision wonders – how can that phrase not conjure icons Hollywood or Catholic? The Lone Ranger! Dashboard Madonnas! Gene Autry! Buddy Jesus! Isn’t a cowboy saint maybe just... a little kitsch? This is, I might add, in a story where the key lost wonder is a stolen wig made of a cloned Christ’s luscious locks.

But if the touch of Technicolor to the iconographies of pulp cinema and plastic religion might edge such an image toward the aesthetic of a Jeff Koons or Pierre et Gilles, I think of household gods, and of Dennis Potter explaining why he used bubblegum pop songs in his TV plays, insisting on the genuine power of things others dismiss as trite. Sell statues of Saint John Wayne the Divine and someone would revere them. Or as Potter might have put it, a three minute pop song of lollipop lyrics can be a fado for the right person in the right context. The secret of some such kitsch might be that it’s always already a lost wonder, the sublime reduced to the mundane, the mundane striving to be sublime. It might be sublime precisely because it’s mundane – a wonder because it’s lost, lost because it’s disposable, signifying ultimately all lost wonder(s).

Whatever the dynamics of import at work, you’ll find the lost wonders at play here can beg the question of just where the line is between mundane and sublime. In All the Things She Wanted, we see fabulous things manifesting from people’s dreams, but these are marvels of the everyday transcendent – the most perfect hamburger in the world, tickets for a gig by a crooner decades dead. And these seem only the perfections of all the small things of The Sight of God, a tale loaded with references to the Flood in which we see a latter-day catastrophe’s flotsam and jetsom turned near enough to sacred mysteries of a cargo cult, stored in an ark of “junk: shells, old records, faintly green from algae, Coke and whiskey bottles, smoothed by the ocean, things that might have been iPods or parts of larger machines. And everywhere, the traces of animals. A fan made from peacock feathers. The wooden head of a snake. A tortoise shell. Statuettes of giraffes and elephants.” 

Junk. Kitsch. Kipple. Knick-knacks. Plastic hippos. Triviality makes such things no less sublime though. Here, you’ll see how objects out of memory – a set of monkey bars, a bar of chocolate – can function as notes in the fado of life, in a song being played on us, the most disposable knick-knack loaded with all the import of a crystal-clear high-C.

This is not to suggest it’s all about signifiers of the lost past rendered wondrous by nostalgia though. Desire is a force at large in the world in many of the stories, but even where it’s out there making its objects real, making ephemera permanent, the effect is an ambiguous boon at best. There are stories I want to throw the words Sehnsucht and saudade at, but I’m not sure those words stick, to be honest. Certainly the latter is at the heart of Fado, as integral to the story as to the music it’s named for. But that story has a darkness to it, verges on horror – if it doesn’t, in fact, in its closing paragraphs, wholly commit to it. Elsewhere there’s a niggling question of the hunger after all desire is fulfilled, when we’ve run out of things to want. And most of all, there’s a motif of worlds so catastrophically estranged by those forces at large in them that, really, yearning for yesteryear through its signifiers might well be a character’s undoing.

Change and stasis are in conflict throughout, direct or indirect: in a world where Good Humor Men come out at dawn to clear corpses from the shells of stone that have sealed them in their apartments, in their rooms, on their sofas, in their own statued bodies... the corpses of those who have surrendered to stasis; in a Washington recombined, retrofitted with patches of other cities, mappable only in collage, but where the protagonist can regain the entirety of her past... if that’s what she really wants; in a Glasgow sundered into St. Mungo and Kentigern, grimy No Mean City on the one hand, gentrified City of Culture on the other. Often, we find characters faced with a world transitioned to utter strangeness, radical instability. The past is not just another country; it’s another reality. The present? The present has run wild with mystery, defies easy explanations. What one does in the face of that... well, that’s the big question.

There are stories of those who have adapted though, as much as of those who are struggling to or stubbornly refusing to. If the world has been irreversibly weirded, there are those like the eponymous character of The Last of the Greyhound Kings who can find the constancies at higher levels, across and between the ceaseless changes. “Routes let you keep the motion,” he says. “Making the next connection is the only way you’ll stay in constant flow. Gotta know the routes better than your own body, gotta know them so well that there’s no line between your body and the city.” Echoing the fado that can “blur the boundary” between listener and music, that zen surrender to the flux of a city or a song might well be worth bearing in mind when it comes to the stories you’re about to read.

The ground under your feet is going to be constantly moving here – not ground at all but the roof of a bus on the road. You’re going to have to hold on tight at the turns, follow the Greyhound King Raines and the Cowboy Saint Welles as they leap from the roof of this moving bus to that one. But if you can turn your focus to the routes – to the patterns that Mercedes, in Red Shoes, has her knack of gleaning from the most seemingly inconsequential details, to the strange new order in the interstitched streets of Washington and who knows where, to the matrix of junctions where St. Mungo and Kentigern weave through each other – maybe you’ll get a sense of what a cowboy saint is, where the Greyhound King goes, what God’s perfect song might sound like, played once, never to be repeated. 

As I say, the lost wonders herein are not the marvels of your traditional fantasy. No, expect a whole lot more than that. In the collision of mundane and sublime, expect a fierce strangeness ripping loose through the world, rewriting its rules, a strangeness unleashed in The Fishie into the very language of the story itself, to breath-taking effect. Where the wonders are lost within these pages, it’s not marvels but mystery waiting to be found. I can’t do justice to these stories any more than I can to the tale of a miniature sarcophagus with plastic hippos for foot, so I’ll say no more now.

I’ll just put you in the more than capable hands of Messrs Raines and Welles, let you discover the joys of that experience for yourself.

- Hal Duncan is the award-winning author of Vellum and Ink.