Friday, 28 November 2008

EP Christmas Party!

December 21st. Mark it down on your cyber calendars. My publisher Eternal Press is hosting a one-off Xmas celebration, chock full of prizes, book excerpts and stellar company, at the usual address:

I believe it's an all-day party--which probably means a three-day party if you factor in the musical chairs we always end up playing with our various time zones--so feel free to expect the unexpected. Bring a friend. Duck past the maitre d'. Make new friends. At these bashes, anything can, and does, happen.

See you there,


Thursday, 27 November 2008

Adventure Classics: Book to Film - Part 2

H Rider Haggard

I have to confess I've only ever read Haggard's two most famous novels, King Solomon's Mines and She. But what novels! The first, and arguably the most influential adventure story since Homer's The Odyssey, is an infectious high of daring characters, exoticism, and journeying into the unknown. An English aristocrat teams up with a Navy captain and the most famous white hunter in Africa, Allan Quatermain, to find the former's lost brother, who was last seen on a treasure hunt. They are guided by a map to the fabled King Solomon's Mines, which Quatermain doubts ever existed. Haggard's goal is a potently simple one--to transport you mind, body and soul to the wilds of darkest Africa. I've read the book three times, years apart, and loved it each time. Simply put, it's the adventure story.

Of the many film versions, I've seen three. They span fifty years of Hollywood history, and the comparisons are fascinating. The earliest of these was made in 1936 and starred Cedric Hardwicke (stoic as ever) as Quatermain, and perhaps most intruigingly, black singer Paul Robson as the mysterious native they befriend along the way. The musical interludes are actually a nice touch; they heighten the film's romanticism between action sequences. With it being black and white, the jungle scenes suffer in comparison with later versions, but there's striking cinematography on display--the whole film is gorgeous to look at. But what I like most about this version is its relative faithfulness to the novel. Characters are added or omitted, and there's a godawful romantic subplot (Haggard left the women at home), but particularly in the second half, the book's most memorable scenes are vividly brought to life. We even get to spend a decent amount of time in the mines themselves, something sadly lacking in the 1950 version. Overall, I'd rank this one highly as a film and as an adaptation.

My favourite King Solomon's Mines starred Stewart Granger as Quatermain and Deborah Kerr (regal actress, stunning redhead) in 1950. Two directors travelled to Africa to film the wildlife and primordial landscape, while also managing to squeeze in a quietly powerful love story. It's the epitome of English adventuring--abrupt manners, stubborn pigheadedness, and repressed attraction that slowly boils to the surface. Granger and Kerr look and sound fantastic. That the plot takes a back seat is surprising when I think of this as my fave version, but it has more to do with Granger being the perfect Quatermain than anything else. There's also a frightening (and real) stampede, a canoe trip, and various other perils along the way. The finale is very much scaled-down from the book, but it's a quiet, satisfying ending to this particular romance.

The 1985 romp was an embarrassing mishmash of trendy heroics and daft comedy (it had to compete with both Indiana Jones and Romancing the Stone). A fine actor like Richard Chamberlain would probably have made a superb Quatermain in a straight version; he even had the thin physique of Haggard's hero. But the whole project was souped up and dumbed down. A case in point: Sharon Stone as the female lead! It seems Hollywood is incapable of filming this story in its original, all-male format. Of the three versions, this one is by far the weakest, and frankly should have a different title, as it bears no resemblance to King Solomon's Mines.

Haggard's second hit was another adventure into the exotic. He wrote She in just a few weeks, in what he called a state of "white heat". Again, it's a variation on the treasure hunt, with three companions journeying into the unknown, but this time there's something decidely supernatural at work. The eponymous lady is in fact Ayesha, a powerful queen who hasn't aged in millennia. Her secret is a strange flame that renders anyone who steps inside it immortal. She rules her ancient kingdom with brutality and superstition. In the story's most famous twist, she reveals this secret to one of the adventurers, whom she believes to be the reincarnation of her long-dead lover, but when she demonstrates the effect by walking into the flame, it reverses her immortality, and she crumbles before his eyes.

The 1936 film adaptation of She is purportedly the best, but I still haven't seen it. That leaves Hammer's 1965 version, starring Ursula Andress, John Richardson, and those two great horror icons, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Being a British production, it's relatively low-budget, but, by that same British token, looks a lot more expensive than it is. There's a nice array of cave interiors, temples, and exotic costumes. I always enjoy this one for its cast, and the fact that it stays fairly close to Haggard's fascinating story. The most famous thing about Hammer's She is Ursula Andress as Ayesha. I think she's well-cast. Striking looks and monotone delivery an exotic queen doth make. Cushing and Lee are good, as always, and there's no shortage of nastiness towards the end. All in all, a pretty good version of a great book.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

If you take away Tarzan, poor ER Burroughs is the most unfortunate author on this list, in terms of screen adaptations of his work. I've read the following books of his, all of which would make terrific family films: The Land That Time Forgot, At the Earth's Core, Pellucidar, A Princess of Mars, Gods of Mars, Warlords of Mars. So what went wrong?

Unfortunately for Burroughs, it's pretty much all been about the jungle guy. Tarzan has overshadowed his other books so completely in the public eye that, even though they were all successful, none has been able to out-muscle audience demand for yet another Tarzan adventure. The Land that Time Forgot was brought to the screen in the seventies. It starred Doug McClure and Susan Penhaligan, and, on balance, was the best of that particular cycle of cheap monster flicks (all starring McClure). Actually, the first half an hour or so of The Land that Time Forgot is rather great. A group of American and English survivors manage to take over the German U-Boat that sank their ship. For the next few weeks, there is a tense seesawing of power on board, the ultimate result being that they end up thousands of miles off course, at the long-lost island of Caprona, a prehistoric world. The film tweaks the books's opening chapters somewhat, but the characters, scenario and action are deftly handled. It's an engrossing start. And to be fair, the remainder of the film is never boring. Despite woeful dinosaur effects, there's always a sense of escapist fun. The ending, too, is admirably faithful to Burroughs'. But I can't help thinking that a modern-day remake would be spectacular.

Same for At the Earth's Core, Burroughs' compelling adventure set in a hidden world deep underground, at the centre of the earth. The land of Peullidar has its own sun (a bright "core"), various disparate human tribes, and a race of hideous, telepathic bird-like creatures called the Mahars, overlords of this realm. Out two heroes, having burrowed down in a proptotype "giant mole", have a hard time resisting the Mahars and galvanizing the tribes into insurrection. Sweeping adventure, corny plot twists, etc. give the story a delightfully juvenile vibe. It would make a terrific matinee movie for kids. Unfortunately, the 1977 attempt was by the makers of The Land that Time Forgot. Cheap sets, feeble sound effects, crummy acting, and maybe the worst monsters ever paraded on screen sink this one like a stuffed diving bell.

In terms of potential, nothing anywhere in this list compares to the scope of Burroughs' great Martian series. He wrote a dozen books in all, I believe, and while I've only read the first three, there was so much imagination in those pages that only a mega-budget Hollywood movie would ever do it justice. That's probably why it has been mooted/started/rumoured/planned/slated for over eighty years. At one point, Ray Harryhausen considered it. Lately, at least five big-name directors have been attached. There's one thing for sure--it could never have been done satisfactorily before the advent of CGI special effects.

John Carter is a Civil War Confederate soldier on the run. One night, in a high cave overlooking the desert, he is whisked away to planet Mars, or what he learns, from its inhabitants, is called Barsoom. Naked, but possessing great agility (due to the lower gravity), he quickly becomes a feared warrior on Barsoom. He befriends a fearsome, twelve-foot green Martian called Tars Tarkas, and finds a loyal pet in multi-eyed, multi-fanged, multi-limbed Woola. But most important of all, he meets lovely Dejah Thoris, the most beautiful (and also naked) woman on the planet, whom he later finds out is none other than a princess of Helium. Carter's various battles, conquests, adventures etc. grow ever more ambitious and dangerous. Spectacular is the world, and the word. It's Burroughs' most gleeful creation--everything you could possibly want from a Martian adventure. Hopefully we'll get to see it some day.

In closing, I'll leave you with my top five books and films from this list. See how many you've read/seen, and if there are any you haven't, I hope I've convinced you to seek them out. It really is like taking a trip back in time. A timeless one.



Top Five Books

1. Mysterious Island
2. King Solomon's Mines
3. A Princess of Mars
4. War of the Worlds
5. The Time Machine

Top Five Film Adaptations

1. War of the Worlds (1953)
2. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
3. The Time Machine (1960)
4. The Invisible Man (1933)
5. King Solomon's Mines (1950)

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Adventure classics: Book to Film - Part 1

As others have often pointed out, I was born in the wrong century. A hundred years earlier would have been pretty much perfect for me. The smart fashions, the eloquent, proper English, the still-thriving romance of adventure, the reserved social modes: late-Victorian England, on the whole, would have suited me to a tee. Many of my favourite writers are from that era: H.G. Wells, H. Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. They blended eloquence with clarity in a way that hasn't really survived to today's abbreviated world. I personally think the written word reached its apogee in those decades approaching and just beyond 1900.

One thing I would definitely miss, though, if I went back in a time machine, would be films. Let's take a look at the adaptations those classic novelists did not live to see (for better or worse), courtesy of Hollywood:

H.G. Wells

The grandfather of modern science fiction, Wells wrote prolifically, socio-politically, and in his day was without peer as a speculative fiction writer. His daring novels inspired some of the most successful screen adaptations of all time. Of the writers in this list, Wells arguably comes off best in terms of his relevance; his themes and scenarios are still pertinent today.

He made no secret of the dark parallels between British Imperialism and the role of his Martian invaders in War of the Worlds. In 1953, George Pal and Byron Haskin updated the story to mirror Cold War paranoia, while in 2005, Steven Spielberg tapped into our post 9/11 fears. Of the two, I think the older version will always be regarded as the classic. It's such a taut, brilliantly realised vision of unstoppable destruction, and while the recent movie echoes Wells' book as a first person experiential journey, its predecessor, a childhood favourite of Spielberg's, projects armageddon onto a (seemingly) more innocent age. Critics often cite Haskin's 1953 original in their lists of Top Ten sci-fi films. The new version is impressive, though, full of bravura filmmaking and nightmare imagery. Gene Barry and Ann Robinson gave strong performances in the original, while Tom Cruise and young Dakota Fanning excelled in 2005.

The Time Machine, Wells' breakthrough, was the first major novel about time travel. Its intriguing vision of two-caste human future was brought vividly to life in George Pal's charming 1960 adaptation. Less successful was Dreamworks' 2002 attempt to update the concept; the Eloi's tribal civilization didn't create a stark enough visual contrast with that of the underground, cannibalistic Morlocks. In the original, they were almost a literal heaven and hell, whereas the update depicts a bedraggled human community besieged by a bedraggled, monstrous enemy. The first thirty minutes of Simon Wells' remake, though, with the hero building his machine to try and alter fate, to save the life of his fiancee, are inarguably more powerful than either Pal's or Well's original openings. It is at the far future break off point, the second act, when the 1960 film trumps the 2002, by sticking close to the novel. And on balance, the older adaptation is by far the most successful.

Only one version of The Invisible Man is worthy of note--James Whale's 1933 film of the same name. It stars the brilliant Claude Rains as a scientist who tries his formula out on himself, quickly succumbing to the omnipotence of invisibility. Power corrupts where there's no accountability. The special effects are great even now, and it's really one of the absolute best horror films of that golden age.

First Men in the Moon remains a quaint story in book and film. It's a kind of flipside to War of the Worlds, with intrepid earthlings travelling to the moon (by way of an anti-gravity paste!!) and inadvertently destroying an ancient lunar civilization. They didn't invite us, and it's our germs that do the trick again.

I'm still waiting for a terrific adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau. It's such a topical, cautionary horror tale for our genetics age. A genius scientist manages to splice human DNA with those of various creatures, engineering a horrific hybrid community on his island. A hierarchy soon develops, with its own set of social codes and laws. But which half will prevail: the human or animal? Lord of the Flies meets The Jungle Book, by way of someone's (Wells'?) worst nightmare. Apparently, the 1933 film Island of Lost Souls is a brilliant movie based on this story, but it's tough to get hold of. The only versions I've seen are a bland '70's effort starring Burt Lancaster, and a dire 1996 film starring Marlon Brando.

Jules Verne

Another renowned sci-fi author whose work has enjoyed mostly great Hollywood success is the Frenchman, Jules Verne. His novels were much more adventure-oriented than Wells', and less interested in socio-political analogies.

I think the best of these (adaptations) is Walt Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, starring Kirk Douglas and James Mason as Captain Nemo and Ned Land, respectively. It's a brilliant distillation of the themes, and, more importantly, it expands the scope beyond the confines of Nemo's fortress submarine, the Nautilus, in which the three survivors are held captive. It's also a lavish production, the like of which wasn't afforded Edgar Rice Burroughs film projects of the 1970's. More than anything, though, it's a lot of fun, much more than the book. Who can forget a drunken Kirk Douglas singing "It's a whale of a tale", and then being applauded by a sealion? James Mason gives the first of two definitive performances of Verne characters; his Nemo is borderline insane, yet sympathetic as well.

His second, and arguably even better, Verne role was that of Professor Lindenbrook in 1959's Journey to the Centre of the Earth. A Scot in the movie, a German in the book, Li(n)den bro(o)k is determined and eccentric in both guises, and it suits Mason the actor perfectly. He has an extraordinary range. The adventure of the book is very much a variation on the treasure hunt, with the ultimate prize being to reach the centre of the earth--no mean feat if you consider that we now know it to be molten, but never mind. The film stands up really well today (even with Pat Boone's crooning), and I think it captures that "spirit of adventure" better than almost any other movie. The new 3D version starring Brendan Fraser is a travesty of an adaptation, but as an experience, it's like nothing else--the 3D effect transports you to world as impressive as anything Verne described.

Around the World in 80 Days is a loooong movie, and it feels it. I haven't read the book, but I'm guessing it won't vary much in terms of plot and the locales visited. I love Niven as Phileas Fogg, any scene set in London, and quite a few of the various exotic sights. It's ultimately too much of a good thing though, and could happily lose the lengthy bullfighting and much of the footage shot from trains.

Mysterious Island (1963) is one of my favourite classic novels, and one of my favourite adventure films. The two are almost nothing alike, but that's alright. For starters, Bernard Herrman's score is so good it evokes all the exoticism and excitement needed to fill a dozen adventures. Inspired casting of the lead, too, with Michael Craig embodying the macho Cyrus Harding perfectly. The oversized monsters (not in the novel) are all fun, courtesy of Ray Harryhausen's magic, but really this is about capturing that elusive spirit of adventure on a wonderfully tropical island. It succeeds in the best possible way. It makes you feel young again.

Next time...Edgar Rice Burroughs and H Rider Haggard.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Eleven-Hour Fall Nominated for Red Roses Award

Great news! My debut science-fiction novella The Eleven-Hour Fall has been nominated in the best short fiction category in the Red Roses for Authors Christmas Awards. The nominees were chosen by readers as the best books reviewed there during the year.

Red Roses is primarily a review site for romance books, but they did accept my sci-fi tale back in June, as it was a love story of sorts, with a strong heroine. It received five red roses.

To vote for the winners in both categories, here's the place to visit:

And as an added bonus, a few of my fellow Eternal Press authors are nominees as well. Fantastic!

Thursday, 6 November 2008

New Release Today - Grandiloquence!

Good news! My latest sci-fi eBook launches today at Eternal Press. Like Cafe at the Edge of Outer Space, it features two characters caught between the earth and the stars. It's the second story in my Earth orbit collection, and I'm especially proud of this one.

Grandiloquence - a lofty, extravagantly colorful, pompous, or bombastic style, manner, or quality especially in language

It is the distant future. A giant exoskeleton built around the earth permits anyone who can pay the price, access to the solitude of a space booth—the ultimate place to stargaze, get laid, or just escape for a while...

Benjamin Umbize recently lost his family to a Namibian genocide while he was studying in England. All he wants is a little quiet time to himself, to research a legendary writer...whose suicide is said to haunt Room 328. Bianca Burnett is a famous pop starlet scheduled to meet her boyfriend for a hot tryst miles above the earth. She hides her sophistication beneath a prickly for-the-cameras persona. But tonight, in Room 328, a friendship will develop that no one saw coming, least of all the student and the diva—a friendship that might just change both their lives forever...


“Who were you, Andrea Castor?” he whispered. “Why did you do it?”

Benjamin Umbize thumbed to the previous page of his scrapbook—a laminated excerpt from an old typed manuscript. The bottom left corner of the text was missing; in its place, the Xerox copier had left a blank black space. Benjamin slid his fingertips over the words and closed his eyes. But however hard he tried, he couldn’t feel her presence.

“Andrea, why did you do it?”

The grey sofa creaked as he leaned back with a sigh. He rummaged through his rucksack next to him on the seat, craving a ham, egg and cheese slice sandwich. Three left. Delicious in a way only he knew. And his last meal away from Earth.

The constellations never moved. Amazing things never do, he thought, we just move around them. During the ninety minutes he’d spent in booth three-two-eight above the atmosphere, the Perseus constellation had shifted from the left half of his window to the right. He finished his sandwich and wrote on his notepad: the cosmos doesn’t remember. The cosmos doesn’t care. We get to choose which of us are remembered. Will I be remembered?

He turned to the first page of his scrapbook—a photograph of his family taken on the day he’d left Namibia for his scholarship at Oxford University. It was the biggest smile his father, Simeon, a local schoolteacher, had ever given. His two sisters, Reba and Philomena, hugged his waist from either side. In the background, damp red sand and a sleek white cone-nosed jet left a lump in his throat. The contrast could not have been more blatant—his origins and his future in the same frame. It was the last time he’d seen any of them alive. He remembered Philomena’s Coca-Cola yoyo she used to take everywhere, and Reba’s incorrigible fascination with toy six-shooter revolvers. But he couldn’t quite hear their voices. Benjamin’s eyes misted as he glanced up into deep space. The Namibian genocide two years ago was a blank in his mind.

But I remember, Dad. I care.


Through the automatic sliding doors, a narrow blue-carpeted corridor wound to the left. It smelled of fresh ink, or some strange detergent. Transparent panels, set at equidistant points along the ceiling offered staggering glimpses of the elevator shaft—a gargantuan tower that rose above the atmosphere itself.

“Anyone afraid of heights?” she muttered.

One of only thirty-two on the planet, the giant tower was over sixty years old. Project Dreamcatcher—an exoskeletal framework over Earth had recently been completed to the tune of many trillions of dollars. In terms of interstellar freight and logistics, the project was expected to save corporations many times that amount in the long term. The amount of fuel required to pull a shuttle free of the earth’s gravitational pull was prohibitive, especially when multiplied by tens of thousands of shuttles per year. Despite global opposition, the exoskeleton did constitute a sound long-term investment. Entire industries had emerged on the giant framework over the planet. A cooperative venture hitherto unprecedented in human history, the Dreamcatcher itself had required the exhaustive mining of eleven planets in neighbouring systems.

In the olden days, this would all be science-fiction, she thought. Too bad all I’m using it for is to get laid.

She adjusted her handbag strap on her shoulder and untangled the other two straps—one belonging to her black tank top, the other to her purple bra. Rummaging in the pocket of her denim skirt, she retrieved a stick of gum. Bland flavour. I wonder if it’ll last me to the top, she thought, glancing up to where the tower met the clouds in a vague, blue hue.

eBook priced $2.50 at