Feb, 2012

Magic of the Angels: Review

Magic of the Angels. Jacqueline RaynerMagic of the Angels by Jacqueline Rayner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Quick Read can easily just slip by in a single sitting. At the end, you might feel the urge to go out and read more of an author, or you might be inspired to read another and another. A Quick Read done well provides a somewhat self contained tale that has a distinct beginning, middle and an end – and presents them with style, energy, enthusiasm, engagement… one or another, several or all.

Somewhere in the mix, ‘Magic of the Angels’ tells a self-contained tale with all the necessary elements, but fails to satisfy with depth and leaves the reader wanting without the hunger to seek out more from the same source.

Having read other books in the Quick Read series for 2012, I have seen how you can achieve some interesting things in a very limited page count. Jacqueline Rayner doesn’t quite pull it off here. The Doctor, Amy and Rory seem right enough, with just enough character to match the expectation of a fan reader or young Whovian. However, perhaps a little too much fan service and rolling out of familiar series tropes makes for a distraction rather than an essential dollop of colour.

I enjoyed the basic plot, but felt that the human villain of the piece might have been given more background to better sell the reader on his intentions. His callouse indifference to the fate of his victims in the pursuit of his own selfish purpose would have benefited from a deeper sence of his hurt or battered vision of the world.

The author makes great use of the abilities of the Weeping Angel, drawing in elements from all appearance of the monster in the series, but fails to provide motivation or thorough explanation. The story fails to explain why the Weeping Angel chooses to submit to external control or feeds with such limited quantities. The canny Angels have survived for so long for a reason, yet this one seems dulled by captivity and indifferent to the possibilities of escape presented by the situation.

The familiar time travelling characters work well enough together and we get the expected division of companions from the Time Lord for hi-jinx and a threat of sudden and premature demise. I can’t pick holes in the essentials of the story, or indeed have any wish to try, but the end result left me feeling mildly unsatisfied. Everything hung together, but it felt thin, like using one of those vacuum-sealed micro-tubs of strawberry jam to spread across a whole piece of steaming toast. You get a hint of flavour, but not enough.

I went in for the whole luxurious Belgian chocolate experience and came away with a thinly coated, store own branded, diet wafer snack. Quick Read, by all means – but, that shouldn’t mean skimping on the story.

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To Infinity and Beyond!

I realise that we have been approaching the Age of Science Fiction for a long time. In a world where technical development seems to be a constant drive and the next best gadget lurks over every horizon, it can only be a matter of time before we finally can wear silver space suits and travel to work with our personal jetpacks.

The Internet seems filled with sci-fi prospects of late. I understand that one state in the US legalised self driving vehicles. Nevada passed an act last year, and Hawaii and Florida have laid the groundwork for similar laws. Seriously. Nevada passed the act in June 2011 – something I obviously missed at the time. I daresay the early adoptees could well be the freight industry who would like nothing more than introducing automated lorries that run circuits across the highways. On roads that already support lanes for traffic with more than just a driver, could we see the addition of a lane slaved to the road system, ‘zombie’ traffic running from A to B without human intervention. Who would have thought it?

Google has announced the intention of making “smart specs” that provide the wearer with a heads-up display using the sort of augmented reality viewing technology currently accessible through smartphones and tablets. Despite the fact I checked the date when I saw this news item, suspecting an April Fools prank, I’m all for the possibilities of such technology. Spectacles might be pushing it, but I can envisage useful applications in motorcycle helmets, providng the implementation doesn’t create health and safety issues. You wouldn’t want the HUD crashing while you’re on the motorway and filling the visor with view obscuring error messages. It would bring new meaning to the Blue Screen of Death on a Microsoft implementation of the technology.

I have also recently seen televisions so trimmed down you would struggle to find cardboard as thin, a picture of something that looked like a transpent smartphone, and Ubuntu (a Linux operating system) creeping from the desktop to the mobile platform and televisions. Strange little blips and spurts in technology promise many bright and shiny things in the near future…

Of course bright and shiny generally means more waste and more mining of precious metals you can only find it remotes areas of the world. Alas, it seems to be the way of things that you can’t have all these good things without giving up something precious in return. Technology often seems like some sort of deal with the Devil. When the news heralds the possible extinction of animals like the Koala and we have constant war and suffering in the Middle East and Africa – it tempers the excitement of what may yet come. Perhaps we need to concentrate as much effort, research and resources into saving the world and ensure the future of all the species with which we share this little blue planet.

In the meantime, you might want to exercise a little so that you can fit into that silver space suit without looking too much like an idiot…

Comfort on Demand

For my part, I find science fiction equals comfort. I could easily sit down for a mammoth session of Star Trek or Doctor Who in the same way I might settle in with a big tub of ice cream or a bumber tube of Pringles.

I find the experience somehow soothing. I disengage to a certain extent, as I know what to expect from the experience. I can happily watch almost any version of Trek or vintage of Who. Or, perhaps I could dig out The Prisoner or Danger Man for some McGoohan spy-action. If I can insert a disc in the player and not have to get up again for a few hours, all the better. I’ll hit Play All and settle in.

I don’t discriminate between good and bad so much when I’m in the mood for a marathon. I might consider Voyager, for example, with a much more critical eye on a one-to-one basis. However, should sit down to watch an afternoon of it on Sky Atlantic (or whichever channel happens to show it at the moment), I forgive those imperfections I might otherwise pick at.

I don’t think we have enough good science fiction on television at the moment, or perhaps it simply slipped under my radar. I dislike the way the UK seems to have caught up with the US in terms of transmission schedules, as it means even when I do find something good I have to wait a lot. Mid-season hiatus, anyone? No thanks. In the old days the UK fell well behind US transmission, so you could expect to see a whole series start to finish with little if any delay. You experienced the flow of the storyline, the crescendo of whatever arc encompassed the season. Now, I sit sullenly waiting for Easter to come around simply to pick up where I left off. So, I turn to those DVDs, and even old videos, to fulfil my yearning for comfortable and dependable sci-fi viewing.

I hanker for the prospect of one demand content taken to a natural extreme. I long for the possibility of switching on my television and watching what I want when I want from whatever era takes my fancy. I shouldn’t need to stack my shelves high with media, especially given in a few years I will find that media superseded by something with a higher capacity and greater fidelity. I would happily pay for the convenience of watching content that matters to me without necessarily subsidizing people who want something else. You know the feeling. The restaurant visit with friends where someone suggests you split the bill, generally at the end of the evening when you’ve eaten with caution and restraint while everyone else had bottles of expensive imported beer, a start platter and dessert. I want to watch old science fiction on demand, and I’ll leave those who want to watch modern blockbusters and sport to pay for themselves.

I think I might watch a little Tom Baker Who this weekend. I have a DVD begging for attention on the shelf. Although, Twin Peaks has been trying to catch my eye for weeks now…

The Voyage of the Space Beagle

I enjoy a nice bit of classic sci-fi. I have been reading The Voyage of the Space Beagle, a fine tale of space exploration by A E Van Vogt. If you enjoy Star Trek, in any incarnation, I recommend you seek out this slim volume.

In structure, the overall tale takes in more than one shorter story bridged into this format. We join Grosvenor, head of the one-man Nexialist department, onboard the Space Beagle. The ship supports both a military and a scientific crew in a precarious balance that becomes a real power play halfway through the book. Nexialism provides a basis for combining all the best elements of the sciences into a more effective and embracing whole – a holistic vision of conceptual perfection. Nexialism also embraces the uses of advanced educational techniques to enhance learning and provide an ideal way to expand the potential of almost anyone in a totally non-obtrusive subliminal way. Grosvenor uses his ability to grasp a little of everything to great effect throughout the book, showing that a narrow-minded approach consistently leaves your weaknesses open to unrelenting and hostile forces.

Star Trek and Alien owe something (or, indeed, a lot) to Van Vogt’s stories of the Space Beagle. One tale deals with an alien menace that uses the crew to implant it’s eggs. The parasitic menace apparently proved influential enough to force 20th Century Fox to settle out of court when Van Vogt sought to press charges against them for plagiarism. More generally, the overall vision of the book feels like proto-Trek, including a specific reference to a 5 or 10 year mission of exploration. Time and again, one or other member of the crew question whether to linger and explore after defeating an assault on the ship, but the demands of the mission and the need to push forever onward always weighs in. The composition of the crew and the power struggles survive in a milder form within the classic Trek of the Original Series, with Kirk depending on the skills and knowledge of his various Departmental Heads. In each villain, the stories also harken back to the Star Trek of old, as these mean and menacing creatures either seek to do harm in the most horrible way or simply exist in an alien fashion beyond the ken of mere mortals to comprehend. Of course, our dear Grosvenor harnesses his new science to grip that which cannot be gripped – otherwise, the ship wouldn’t make it past the first obstacle!

Seriously, I recommend reading this book because of these many influences, the generally enjoyable science fiction stories therein, and the fact it isn’t that long. You’re not committing yourself to reading something monstrously thick here. You have a thin volume of less than two hundred pages, split into five consecutive tales. I love the simplicity, the purity. I read it now for the fourth or fifth time. I can’t say the same about many other books – and my copy becomes increasingly dog-eared. I expect to read it a few more times before it finally disintegrates.