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I did a long blog post about the 1979 Ridley Scott movie Alien on my personal blog a few weeks back (it should have appeared here on the Bee really, but I wrote it on my blog by mistake and then couldn't transfer it without losing all the pictures).  So it seemed only fair to go on and write about Aliens, the James Cameron sequel from 1986.  There will be SPOILERS.

When I ordered Aliens on DVD I accidentally bought the 'Special Edition'. This adds an extra 15 minutes or so to the theatrical release which I saw and loved when it came out. I usually steer clear of special editions and director's cuts of films I like (I preferred Blade Runner when it had a voice over and a happy(ish) ending) but in this case I was quite impressed. The only downside is the addition of a slightly cheesy bit of back-story for Ripley ( it turns out she's lost a daughter, which is a Hollywood scriptwriter's explanation for why she befriends and protects the little girl in the movie - and there I was thinking it was just because she was a decent human being).  Other than that, the restored footage really does improve the pace and mood, and allows for a lot of welcome little extra character details.

The film picks up where Alien left off, with Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, the sole survivor of the Nostromo, drifting deep-frozen in her space-lifeboat.  But - shock, horror!- when she's rescued by a salvage team she discovers that decades have passed since the first film ended, and the desolate planet where the alien was discovered is now home to a terraforming colony. The sinister company she works for doesn't believe her account of the alien, but when contact with the colony is lost she is persuaded to go back as an advisor with a squad of sweaty, sweary space marines to see what's happened.

A Ron Cobb design for the film.
What's happened, needless to say, is that loads of horrible aliens have killed everybody in hideous ways, and once the marines have got into the apparently deserted colony buildings they have the Devil's own job getting back out again: the second half of the film is one long siege/chase, as the dwindling band of survivors scramble out of the frying pan and into the fire again and again and again.

A criticism I've seen offered of Aliens is that it simply rehashes all the elements of the first film. To me, however, this doesn't matter at all because a) that's sort of what we want sequels to do, isn't it? and b) it uses these familiar elements to create a completely different film.  Alien is a bleak, haunting, horror film: Aliens is an exciting war story/action movie, and because its tone and aims are so different it somehow manages to step out of the shadow of its predecessor while paying ceaseless visual and narrative homage to it.

It never sets out to terrify us in the same way as Alien, although there a few effective shocks, and the bit where Ripley is trapped in a room with a couple of scuttling facehuggers is hard to watch if you're an arachnophobe (I've only ever seen that bit through the gaps between my fingers). It also uses our memories of the first film to create tension. The scene where the marines first make their way into the deserted colony was almost unbearably edge-of-seat the first time I saw it, while Lance Henriksen's creepy android Bishop, all lank red hair and poached-egg stare, looked likely to be as treacherous as the android in the original film.  Overall it feels much more like a piece of Hollywood product that Alien, but it's so expertly done that I can't help but be delighted by it.

Take the marines, for instance.  It's sometimes hard to get a handle on the minor characters in military movies - they all tend to be about the same age, wear the same uniforms, have the same haircuts, and spend their time covered in camouflage face-paint shouting things like 'Incoming!'. Most of the platoon in Aliens don't get much screen-time, yet each of them has a line or two of dialogue that helps us to identify them; they may be stereotypes, but we feel we know them.  'Have you ever been mistaken for a man?' the company wiseguy asks tough lady marine Vasquez as they prepare for their mission. 'No," she snaps back. 'Have you?'  Not exactly Oscar Wilde, perhaps, but it serves to introduce them, and tag them in our memories so that we at least know who's who when the acidic alien goo starts hitting the fan.

Unfortunately the marines are also the film's most serious flaw.  Cameron makes heavy-handed points about military arrogance and incompetence, but his take on soldiering seems to come entirely from the Vietnam movies of the late seventies and early eighties, and his marines behave more like strung-out conscripts than the hardened professionals they're supposed to be. And while real-life officers may sometimes be useless, it's hard to imagine them being quite as useless as Lieutenant Gorman. When he issues a panicky order to his troops that they mustn't actually fire their guns as they creep into the alien lair beneath the colony's nuclear reactor, the loud creaking noise we detect is the sound of the film makers stacking the odds against our heroes.

What makes this more annoying is that it's unnecessary: the marines could be as competent and believable as those in Generation Kill and still be defeated by the aliens. In fact, wouldn't that make it more exciting? Wouldn't that make it more of a vindication for Ripley when they end up looking to her for leadership?

The other problem is the little girl, Newt, who is discovered living wild under the floors of the colony, all her friends and family having been dragged off to the basement to act as gro-bags for baby aliens.  I'm sorry to say that the young actress who plays her isn't really very good: her lines sound rote-learned, her movements are often studied, and she isn't even much cop at screaming (which she does a lot of).  She makes you appreciate all the more the amazing performances which someone like Steven Spielberg can get out of child actors.

But most films have their flaws, and Aliens's are far outweighed by the good bits.  The best of which is Sigourney Weaver's performance as Ripley. I believe Alien was her first speaking role, and although she's perfectly good in it, she's one face in an ensemble and doesn't have to do a lot more than run about looking worried. Aliens revolves around her, and without her it would be unimaginable.  At the beginning she is traumatised by the events of the first film - the special edition, with its slightly slower pace, emphasises this - and her obvious dread adds to the foreboding that hangs over those first scenes where the marine squad set down outside the colony. Then, as the story moves on, she somehow gathers an immense inner courage, and ends up doing the things that usually only the male protagonists get to do in movies. When she turns back into the doomed colony to rescue her lost ward she is acting in the the tradition of a hundred Hollywood heroes. Taller, bonier, and slightly older than your average movie heroine, she was and remains the strongest female character I've ever seen in a film of this type.

I think in the end, while Alien is clearly a better and a more important movie, Aliens is the one I enjoy more.  In some ways the differences between the two sum up the differences between mainstream American films of the bleak, pessimistic '70s and the upbeat, can-do '80s.  In Alien, one of the good guys turns out to be a sinister robot; in Aliens the sinister robot turns out to be a good guy after all.  At the end of Alien when Ripley falls asleep in her chilly space-fridge she has lost everything and has only a cat for company. By the end of Aliens she has managed to assemble a little family around her. If you like your SF bleak and 1970s-ish you'll prefer the former images, but I think the end of the second film, with its two sleepers instead of one, makes a perfect, unexpectedly tender end to the story.

And of course it is the end: one hears rumours of a third and fourth film, of various spin-offs and some kind of prequel, but these are just misinformation seeping through to us from a parallel universe with less taste and greedier film makers than our own. Happily, Hollywood knew when to stop for once. There were only ever two Alien/s films.

Guest Post: Costly Kids

Thanks to Karen Dahl at Early Childhood Education, who has sent me this cheery infographic on the costs of raising a child:

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Guest Post: Katzenjammer

By Bill Havercroft.

Listening to one of Norwegian all-female band Katzenjammer's two studio albums with no prior knowledge, you would be forgiven for getting the wrong impression. Here's a bunch of sweet-voiced girls, performing well-written songs covering a wide selection of genres but essentially falling under the single adjective "folksy", assisted, by the sound of it, by a solid session band and all the usual studio production magic. Big deal.

So you shouldn't do this. Instead, you should go immediately to YouTube and find some good-quality clips of them performing live. This should clarify a few things. Firstly, yes the Katzenjammer ladies all can really sing. Their repertoire calls on several different female vocal specialities: the fragile chanteuse, the sultry jazz siren, the operatic soprano, the roaring rock goddess, and my personal favourite, tight four-part harmony (I'm a sucker for good four-part harmonies). Lead singer duty rotates between the four members, just like the girl bands of yore, and they always sound great.

Secondly, it's clear that the girls are in fact extremely talented instrumentalists. They use a huge variety of instruments, and the rotation of the lead singer from song to song extends to mixing around who plays what. It sounds like a gimmick, but there's no trade-off; every member plays every instrument she picks up like a pro. It's a wonderful thing to witness.
Thirdly, "stage presence" is an ill-defined term, but goddamn, Katzenjammer have it, whatever it is. It goes beyond their technical ability, the quality of their songs and their glamorous, fanciful stage outfits. They obviously simply love to perform, and so they pour absolutely everything into it. The result is that they're the most stompingly entertaining live band I've seen in ages.

At time of writing, Katzenjammer are in the middle of a short UK tour, before embarking on what looks like an absolutely rammed schedule of summer festival appearances across Europe.  

Photos: The Katzenjammer website.


If you'd asked me before I read Tim Maughan's debut collection Paintwork, I'd probably have said that 'Hip, cutting-edge cyberpunk with a techno-rave attitude' wasn't really my cup of tea.  The observation, familiar from William Gibson and other cyberpunk writers, that the street finds its own uses for cutting edge technology, is indisputably true, but I've never really sought out books and stories based upon it - my own imagination is stuck too firmly in the pre-digital age.

But luckily I happened to sit on a reading by Tim Maughan at last year's Bristolcon, and I was immediately struck by both the crisply imagined near-future setting and the energy of the language.  " wasn't the gait-trackers, face-clockers or even the UAVs that got 4Clover in the end. The word on the timelines had said it was a Serbian zombie-swarm hired by an irate art critic that had tracked him down and smeared his co-ordinates all across the Crime and ASB wikis."

There are three stories in this short collection, and each is is set in the same very near and very credible future.  In the title story a graffiti artist called 3Cube stalks the mean streets of Bristol, hacking into the QR codes on virtual reality advertising hoardings to overwrite their corporate messages with his own artwork. In Paparazzi, which again takes place in Bristol,  a documentary maker is hired by powerful players of a MMORPG to infiltrate the game and and secure incriminating footage of a rival faction.  In the third story, Havana Augmented, two young Cubans hack illegally downloaded VR games into new and startling forms.  Each story is short (the whole book runs to 102 pages), but they have a power that is missing from many much longer works, and they linger in the memory.

Personally, I liked Paparazzi the least, but that's because I've never really played a computer game, and find it hard to visualise immersive VR environments or understand their appeal; it's still a perfectly good story.  I preferred 3Cube, busy replacing the advertisements of tomorrow with his own haunting artworks, and the young heroes of Havana Augmented, who hack and soup up their Virtual Reality robo-warriors as skillfully as the previous generation of Cubans augmented their 1950s American automobiles.  There are some exhilarating moments as their massive, digital 'mechs' do battle in the streets of Havana. Indeed, all the stories capture the excitement of the technology that is coming our way.  But, while they are far too subtle to be called 'Dystopian', these are not upbeat visions of the future.  Dystopian stories are basically escapism, smashing up the real world with all its complex problems and replacing which one which ostensibly worse, but usually far simpler.  The stories in Paintwork build on the far scarier notion that the future will be just like the present only more so.  Each is about a talented young person who is trapped or tricked by the corporate interests which control their world - interests which have little use for them, or for their skills.  The technology of tomorrow is, all-too believably, used purely in the service of selling us stuff , like the 'spex' which everyone in the world of Paintwork wears, allowing them to see the virtual reality adverts and logos plastered all over it.   When the hero of Paparazzi is asked to meet someone at Starbucks he he just blinks at the Google Earth logo at the bottom of her virtual invitation and his spex show him a trail of football-sized coffee beans hanging in the air, leading up Bristol's Park Street to where, "High in the sunny Bristol sky he could see a ten metre high latte hanging like a hot air balloon, the huge green arrow suspended from its underside pointing down at the store's location."

Of course, Google are actually testing VR specs as I write this.  Paintwork is built around technological developments so imminent that in a few more years I suspect we'll all have them: we'll all be following trails of virtual coffee beans into the future.  Tim Maughan's achievement is to take these dawning possibilities and spin them into pacy, cynical, neo-noir short stories.  I hope he's got a novel in the works.

Philip Reeve

Here's a link to Amazon's page for the paper version of Paintwork.  They also have the Kindle version.  Or you can buy it as an e-book from Smashwords.

(I notice on the Smashwords site it says that 'This book contains content considered unsuitable for young readers 17 and under,' so You Have Been Warned... but I'm not sure what that content is. There are some four-letter words among the dialogue, but nothing you couldn't overhear in the average primary school playground. It strikes me as a book that a lot of teenagers would enjoy.)

The 'Hip, cutting-edge cyberpunk with a techno-rave attitude' quote comes from Gareth L. Powell

A Boy and a Bear in a Boat

This is probably the most original cover I've seen on a children's book in recent years, and, happily enough, it's wrapped around one of the most original children's books I've ever read.

Dave Shelton is already familiar to readers of the DFC and The Phoenix Comic as the creator of the ongoing canine-noir detective series Good Dog, Bad Dog and several fine stand-alone strips. A Boy and a Bear in a Boat contains a number of his beautiful illustrations, but it's his first story in prose, and it's a remarkably assured debut.

This is not a book where very much happens.  The title pretty much says it all.  There is this Boy.  And this Bear.  And they're in this Boat.  That's pretty much it.  Where have they come from? Where are they going? We never find out.  Why? Again, we are never told.  The Bear is the captain of the boat, but his slightly pompous confidence in his own navigational skills seems misplaced; they are quickly lost, and the only map on board is the one on the cover - a pretty unhelpful expanse of plain blue sea.

Of course, events do punctuate the voyage.  There are storms (beautifully illustrated storms, at that). A landing upon an abandoned, drifting ship.  A sea monster.  And a very funny sandwich.  It's all described in clear, spare language, and in precise detail: reading it aloud to Sam, I almost wondered if it had started out as an idea for an animated movie. It's a bit like watching a cartoon in your head.

Sam (who's 10) enjoyed it largely for its humour.  There are plenty of good slapstick sequences, and the loveable but often incompetent Bear appealed to him, as did the Boy's resourcefulness, and the growing friendship between the two.  He thought it was a funny book, and he's right.  But reading it as an adult, I sensed something darker going on.  Where has this boy come from?  He has a family; they are mentioned from time to time.  Why has he had to leave them?  What is this voyage he is setting out on?  And at the end - and I don't think is a spoiler - there really isn't an end: boy and bear sail on hopefully towards the next horizon and the next, but the reader senses that they will never arrive, and that their futile journey will go on for ever.

Are they, I began to wonder, dead?  The set-up is instantly reminiscent of  Charon the ferryman rowing the spirits of the departed across the Styx and Acheron.  Is the boy in Limbo, or some Existentialist afterlife?  Is it just a funny story about a boy and a bear in a boat, or is the whole thing an absurd parable about the meaninglessness of life in a Godless universe?

The book drops few hints.  It's extraordinarily self-disciplined, resisting any temptation to expand the world of the story beyond its three basic elements.  In some ways, it's powerfully depressing.  But only for grown-ups.  And in a good way!  Read it, and see for yourself.

A Boy and a Bear in a Boat is published by David Fickling Books, and is available at good bookshops, or HERE.