Book #37: Iron Council (2004)

iron councilauthor: China Miéville
length: 614 e-pages
language: English
finished on: 3 August 2013

I’m getting lazy with this blog again. So I finished this book, the third in China Miéville’s Bas-Lag trilogy, about a month ago now. To sum up, it wasn’t as good as the previous ones, but I still liked it.

The story is described on various sites discussing Miéville as having the most overtly political statement in it, and also as fulfilling Miéville’s desire to write a story in every genre by having Western themes, such as travellers on horseback and a train whose tracks are being laid. The “Iron Council” of the title is exactly that train, a socialist utopia that broke away by revolution from a monopolist railroad company – I guess this is sort of spoiler territory, because I didn’t know what the Iron Council was supposed to be before I actually read the book, but they run away and become a “perpetual train” laying down tracks in front as fast as they take up the tracks behind. I’ve already noted that Miéville loves to make use of train tropes, and this reflects in his later work “Railsea”, which I also reviewed recently.

I think I was most pleasantly surprised to find that one of the main characters (there are three, essentially) was gay, although as I’ve mentioned before, Miéville uses a kind of unique dialect when he writes his Bas-Lag books, and there was an entirely different word used. He’s in love with one of the other main characters, who is presented as aloof and like he considers himself a god being benevolent towards the younger wrathful character. And bi, which predictably causes tension in the relationship. Even then, it’s not presented as a very healthy relationship, and I liked that because it shows authenticity to me.

In many ways it was also like a kind of relief to be able to enter into Miéville’s world again, and the aforementioned unique words were a key element of this, even though they’re just a very small background aspect. I liked seeing into more of the mythology of the world and seeing some more of the races and characters that he uses, although this book very much focused on the humans compared to the previous stories. I rather hope he makes more books in that universe.

There was a strange section in the second act of the book, in which the point of view transports back in time (and references some of the events of the first book in doing so, which got me confused), and focuses on the older man who thinks himself a god, and the establishment of the Iron Council. The writing style here is different, as it is mostly told in the present tense, doesn’t use chapter numbers, and marks direct speech with a dash instead of quotation marks. I found this kind of jarring. My kindle also registered it as “one” chapter even though it’s actually about 12, and there was a big gap in the line along the bottom showing the chapter endings.

I think the main thing I’d want to complain about, though, was the ending. I don’t really want to go into too much detail, but it was very anticlimactic and disappointing (although there are a satisfying number of twists leading up to the ending). I would also perhaps complain about Miéville’s writing style, which I think was more baroque in this book than in the others that I’ve read. It wasn’t quite as long as the others in the series, and I actually finished it quicker, but it felt longer.

I wouldn’t recommend the book unless you’ve already read the others in the series (although the stories are standalone and this definitely doesn’t require knowledge of the previous books). But I’d recommend the three as a series.

Film #90: Monsters, Inc. (2001)

MOnsters-inc1director: Peter Docter
length: 92 minutes
language: English
watched on: 26 July 2013

After watching Monsters University, I just wanted to see the first one again to see how each hangs up against the other. It’s been at least about 5 years since I watched this movie, and thus I’d actually forgotten a lot of the plot besides the basics. I’d forgotten, for instance, that Mike has a girlfriend in this movie, that Mike wasn’t actually a scarer, the whole scene with the Abominable Snowman, and a whole major plot point about Boo and Randall’s evil plans for her. So even though by my count this is at least the 4th time I’ve seen Monsters Inc, I was able to be pleasantly surprised by a few of the plot twists.

One other thing I never realised, or had forgotten, was how little actual scaring there is in this film. In Monsters University, we’re treated to extensive scenes involving scaring by different monsters using different techniques, but here we get only one introductory scene actually showing a scare, which turns out to be a practice drill and therefore not strictly real. I guess we’re expected to fill in the gaps ourselves, or something.

I generally, genuinely like this film a lot, and watching it again was a good experience. Seeing Boo again after watching the other film which didn’t have her in it was particularly good, as she’s one of the best parts.

The only other plot hole I found was wondering how Mike managed to get out of the Himalayas. It seems petty, but it bothered me. And I’m sure when they had the big scene with all the doors opening at once they ran into doors which didn’t open to closets, and I found it unrealistic that people didn’t start randomly walking through the doors. Then I found it strange that the monsters took so long to figure out that people aren’t actually poisonous – and how quickly Sully comes to the conclusion that this is false when he’s actually faced with a little girl in his own living room. On the other hand, I did enjoy little tidbits like the Japanese restaurant owners shouting whenever someone enters, or the side character that keeps ending up with a sock on his back and having to be sterilized.

In any case, it’s the fourth time I’ve watched the movie and I don’t think it’ll be the last. But perhaps I shouldn’t leave 5 years between rewatching films I like in future…

Film #89: Monsters University (2013)

s445-63pub-pub16-143-jpg_165824director: Dan Scanlon
length: 104 minutes
language: English
watched on: 16 July 2013

This film actually came out in the English version as well as Japanese here, which is more than I can say for Wreck-It Ralph, the last Disney movie I wanted to watch, so I could actually see this one in the cinemas. I wasn’t expecting great things from it; although it had the same characters as the first movie, as a prequel it is conspicuously missing Boo. I’d also heard a couple of reviews that were middling.

I did overall like it, particularly because I was giggling at the jokes most of the way through. But the basic storyline is one of American colleges and fraternity nonsense – I still don’t even get what fraternities are other than something I wouldn’t want to join in the first place – and a lot of it felt unrelatable. Also you kind of know where it’s going to end up, but there are enough twists near the end to keep this slightly unexpected.

The story concerns Mike and Sully, from the first movie, both enrolled in the scaring program at Monsters University, but kicked off when it turns out neither of them are very good at it. Then they enroll in a scaring contest, which they have to enter as part of a team of 6 (where the fraternity comes in), in order to win back their place on the program. The Dean in charge of said program (played excellently by Helen Mirren) was a great screen presence, but her interest in the contest seemed to me completely unnatural, as if university staff would actually care what kind of rubbish their students are getting up to. The main adversity is that the fraternity they join is the most squibbish and least scary of all the fraternities, and they have to turn this all around. So far so predictable.

Actually, I found all the fraternity characters worthy additions to the cast, and enjoyed that part a lot. And later in the plot it becomes less predictable as there are a couple of significant twists in your expectation of where the plot will go next near the end. There’s one sequence in particular (spoiler alert) set in the human world which I thought was very well-done, and seems to have been partly made to show off their water and reflection animation skills.

The biggest emotion I took away from the film, though, was the desire to watch the first movie again. And that’s just what I did. (up next)

Film #88: The Blue Umbrella (2013)

blue_umbrella_h_2013director: Saschka Unseld
length: 7 minutes
language: none
watched on: 16 July 2013 (bonus feature with Monsters University)

A short feature before Monsters University, which I saw last month, in the grand tradition of putting short films before Pixar features in the cinema. This film depicts a busy city street, where all the buildings and various pipes, mailboxes, floor vents and other inanimate objects are sentient, and communicate with simplistic facial expressions. The main character is a blue umbrella who falls in love-at-first-sight with a nearby red umbrella, but is blown away and gets battered up by cars.

It’s a silent film in the sense of no dialogue, and no human characters really appear aside from to put up a sea of umbrellas. The animation is photorealistic, except for the facial expressions of the various objects, to the point where I was genuinely surprised. Its story is very simple, of course, but still relatively moving. It’s not a big one, of course, but then it is just a pre-feature short. I’m mainly including it for completeness (and to commend the animation).