NEW BOOK & MOVIE REVIEWS: “THE CITYBORN” and “THE MUMMY”

Figure 1 – Edward Willett LEFT

The guy at left, Edward Willett, whose semi-YA book, The Cityborn, is the main subject of this week’s column, is another Canadian who, like Robert J. Sawyer, makes you feel tired; in fact, they make you—okay, me!—feel like I’ve accomplished very little in my life. Rob Sawyer, as you probably know, has won just about every writing award it’s possible for an SF/F writer to win; he’s had a TV series made from one of his books, and he brings out a new (usually award-winning!) book just about every year.

Similarly, Willett has been nominated for, and won, an Aurora Award the (Canadian version of the Hugo); he’s been nominated this year as well for his YA fiction. Not only that, but his bio says he wrote a weekly newspaper science column for almost 20 years(!), and was also a weekly guest on CBC Radio’s Afternoon Edition, talking about science for 17 of those years.  He currently writes a bimonthly SF/F column for Freelance, the magazine of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild. He’s also written plays, acted and Ghu knows what else; The Cityborn is his eighth book for DAW. Sheesh!

Figure 2 – The Cityborn Front Cover by Stephan Martiniere CENTER

I call The Cityborn a semi-YA novel because the protagonists are twenty years old when the main action of the book takes place, although they are introduced to the reader when they are newborns. (Don’t worry, you don’t have to read their entire 20-year history to get to the action!) In the Prologue, we are introduced to the City, an egg-shaped metal building that squats on rusted columns over The Middens (the city’s trash heap) and houses something like fifty thousand inhabitants, from Tier 1 at the bottom to Tier 12 at the top, where the Officers live (and a rumoured Tier 13 where the Captain is; but nobody has ever gone there).

The City has squatted there for half a millennium; The Officers (and probably the semi-mythical Captain) live in luxury, while underneath them, from The Bowels—four layers below Tier 1 but above The Middens—to the prisons on Tier 10, ordinary citizens live out their lives in the decaying squalour that is The City. The City squats in the middle of a ring of mountains, called The Iron Ring; between the Iron Ring and The City are the Estates of the Officers, maintained by human labour and robotics.

Nobody knows what’s outside the Iron Ring; it is, however, common knowledge that escape to that outside is fatal; humans cannot eat the indigenous fauna and flora—all human food is grown inside the Iron Ring. Likewise, the indigenous fauna cannot digest humans, but that doesn’t stop them from trying; there is no escape from The City. Should anyone try, there are killer robots on The Rim to keep would-be escapees inside.

The First Officer, Kranz, rules the City on behalf of the Captain with an iron fist—his weapons are the armed Provosts; a Kranz has been the First Officer since the beginning. Nobody knows or remembers what came Before; The City is, was, and always will be.

Except that Kranz—and a couple of his confidants—knows that the Captain is dying. Kranz is a clone of the original Kranz, the very last clone the cloning machinery has broken down and is irreparable.

Figure 3 – Heinlein’s Universe cover CENTER

To the seasoned reader of SF/F, this is not a new scenario; it’s the “generation starship” scenario most familiar from Robert A. Heinlein’s Universe, (also known as Orphans of the Sky) among other books. Even though inhabitants of The City don’t know they’re on a generation starship—one that must travel to the stars from Earth not through “warp drive” or some FTL technology, but has to obey the speed limits and raise generations of would-be colonists until they finally reach a destination—the reader knows.

Why else would the ship be a closed environment? Why else would the planet’s flora and fauna be inedible (even poisonous) to people, if they’d evolved there? Why are The City’s self-repairing functions—even those overseen by Officers and robots—beginning to fail?

The Prologue, as I’ve said, introduces us to Danyl—the young male protagonist—and Alaina, the female one. When they were babies, a woman named Yvelle had—as an act of revenge for the death of her husband and child at the hands of the Provosts—kidnapped him under orders from a rebellious group from a room with seven babies. He and another infant had certain genetic markers, and Yvelle had taken Danyl and killed the other infant.

She had missed Alaina, who also had the markers, but had been away being treated for an infection. Yvelle delivered Danyl to Erl, who would raise him among the outcasts of The City, in The Middens. Danyl would grow up among the savage gangs, like the Rustbloods and Greenskulls, yearning to be in the City. By contrast, Alaina would grow up a child of privilege on Tier Twelve, yearning to see outside the Tier where she was a virtual prisoner.

But plans are afoot that involve both youths; neither is aware that their respective guardians are embroiled in a power struggle that will change not only their lives, but the life of every inhabitant of The City, The Middens, and the Estates. Although their guardians are on opposite sides of the struggle, both have similar aims, and neither youth knows or can envision what is in store for them.

We’ve seen it all before, except for the fact that here there are two protagonists; usually it’s a single (usually male) protagonist who finds he is the Chosen One who will eventually End the Voyage, or Fulfill the Prophecy, or Distim the Doshes. In this case there are two who have separate but linked functions; it’s part of what lifts this out of the usual rut of YA (or semi-YA) books; Willett has gone against the general trend of replacing a male protagonist with a female by having both sexes as equally important protagonists.

And when the two have fulfilled their function, the book seems to actually have an ending, rather than serving as the introduction to a trilogy. Which is actually laudable; although I enjoy a well-written series, there are just too darned many these days that seem to be extended stories just for the sake of being multi-volume sets. Although I might have a few minor quibbles about infrastructure and the like, this was a well-written book that kept me interested all the way through. Recommended for YA readers and adults alike, though the adults will definitely be way ahead of the protagonists! I don’t do half-“stars,” so I’ll give it four-plus thingies. ¤¤¤¤+

Figure 4 – Tom Cruise in The Mummy CENTER

Without getting into his connections to Scientology, which are contentious at best, I’ll say that for the most part, I have enjoyed Tom Cruise’s movies. He’s not the world’s best—nor the world’s worst—actor. He has sort of one schtick, and he does that well. He also does—and this must drive the insurance company insane—many of his own stunts. Can you imagine it? A star worth multi-millions of dollars hanging, for example, on a wire outside the Burj Khalifa, one of the world’s tallest buildings?

Although he doesn’t fit the description of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher character, he has pretty successfully portrayed him in two movies: Jack is 6’5” tall; Cruise is 5’7.75 (officially) tall. But Cruise carries himself with a certain authority and gravity, as Reacher would.

Cruise has successfully portrayed Mission Impossible’s Ethan Hunt in no fewer than five movies (with a sixth due in 2018), though if truth be told, the last one was not exactly memorable—I’ve watched it a couple of times and keep forgetting what it was about.

He’s also well known for non-series movies, like Top Gun (okay, a sequel has been announced), Risky Business , Jerry Maguire; Rain Man; Vanilla Sky; also genre movies Edge of Tomorrow (a really good one, IMO), Oblivion and Minority Report; and more. He’s an action star, and a bankable one. Which is probably why Universal chose him to spearhead their new reboot of their classic monster films, called generically “Universal’s Dark Universe.”

The classic mummy story starring Boris Karloff concerned an Egyptian priest named Imhotep, his forbidden love interest Princess Ankh-es-en-amon, the Scroll of Thoth, and something called tana leaves. One of the best-known scenes from that 1932 movie involved an empty mummy case and a gibbering archaeologist (Bramwell Fletcher) saying “He went for a little walk!” Well, classic just ain’t good enough for Universal, y’know.

They threw the baby out with the bathwater—just like the recent Wolfman movie with Benicio del Toro and Anthony Hopkins—and completely rewrote the scripts from top to bottom. It seems that “even a man who is pure at heart and who says his prayers at night/may [rewrite a script] when the wolfbane blooms and the moon is full and bright.” So the new Mummy is a horror/fantasy/action film.

Now The Mummy involves a princess, Ahmenet, who, upon being deposed from her upcoming turn as Pharaoh when her dad fathers a boy child, devotes herself to the powers of evil (“Set,” the “dark god”), kills her father and the child, and is just about to turn her own boyfriend into the incarnation of Set, who will (dare I say it?) rule the world, when she is set upon and mummified alive by the horrified priests of…I dunno, Isis or someone. (For some reason dedicating yourself to Set makes odd mathematical equations appear as raised tattoos on your skin, and you acquire extra irises in your eyeballs.) She is carried a thousand miles from Egypt and buried underground in Mesopotamia in an underground tomb full of mercury (Hg), because mercury poisons evil spirits too, I guess. (Except obviously not well enough.)

Ahmenet is played by Sofia Boutella, who I think also plays the zebra-faced woman in the new Star Trek movie; Cruise plays sometime tomb-robber Nick Morton, who has a sidekick, Chris, played by Jake Johnson. Both are (I think) in the Army, but apparently the usual Army rules, including uniforms, don’t apply to them. They’re trying to “save historical artifacts” from Iraqi insurgents and religious fundamentalists who are destroying them by stealing them and selling them on the black market.

Morton has a map stolen from archaeologist Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) that will lead him to something great, only they’re fired upon in the village they’re trying to plunder and Chris calls in a “Hellfire” drone strike, opening a hole that leads to this giant underground cavern where—surprise!—Ahmenet is entombed.

In the meantime, workers excavating a new Underground (subway) tunnel break into a Crusaders tomb hidden under London (a newscast explains that London is basically a giant boneyard built on thousands of bodies) where we have already learned that a jewel from the “Dagger of Set” has been entombed with a Crusader knight. (Are you still with me?) Ahmenet needs the Dagger (complete with jewel) to complete the ritual that would have turned her boyfriend into Set’s living avatar.

From here it gets complicated. Russell Crowe is in it; I won’t tell you who he plays, but it’s another Universal thingy. Jenny the “archaeologist” works for him. She and Cruise and Chris descend into the tomb where Chris gets bitten by a camel spider, Morton unleashes Ahmenet, becoming “cursed” in the process, and they all head off in a giant cargo plane.

Oh, yeah, here are the two interesting parts of this movie: one, Morton, Cruise’s character, never really acts in this film as do Cruise’s usual characters—he’s acted upon throughout the whole film; and two, this movie steals from everyone!

I can’t claim to have caught them all, but it steals from American Werewolf in London, The Mummy (Brendan Fraser version), Evil Dead, The Quatermass Experiment and a whole heap of others. I won’t give any more spoilers than I already have; as an action movie it has lots of action, but not a lot of it makes a lot of sense. The ending has a slight twist, but probably nothing you won’t have seen coming.
A lot of reviewers (and viewers) absolutely hated this movie. I can honestly give this two whatchamacallits. ¤¤ And that’s because it’s not actively offensive. Watch at your own risk; but remember, there are more “Dark Universe” (one of them starring Crowe) movies coming!

**LAST WORDS**Aurora voting ends September 2. If you’re Canadian, please go to www.prixaurorawards.ca and vote!

Comments on this column are welcome. You can comment here, or you can comment on Facebook, where I publish links to this column. Please don’t feel you have to agree with me to post a comment; feel free to argue with my opinion; it is, as always, only my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week!

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