Friday, 19 May 2017

The Dark Is Rising [Review: Mother of Eden]

Several generations after John Redlantern and his followers left the Circle to find new places to live, John's own story has become part of the accumulating mythology of Eden, and the colony has become divided into two main tribes - the adventurous Johnfolk who and the conservative Davidfolk who still wait by the circle of stones for the promised return of the Landing Veekle and the godlike figure of Angela or Mother Gela.

The second of Chris Beckett's trilogy of novels set on Eden focusses on Starlight Brooking, a woman of a smaller tribe descended from John Redlantern's clawfoot ally Jeff. Like Jeff, Starlight and her tribe are pacifists with a tradition of mindful meditation, living on a small island to avoid the skirmishes between Johnfolk and Davidfolk and building boats to trade with the mainland. However on one visit Starlight encounters Greenstone, the son of the leader of the Johnfolk, and travels back with him to become his bride.

The society of Eden has changed in ways foreshadowed by the events of the first novel. Forms of money are appearing. The Johnfolk have discovered metal and moved forward into a bronze age with better weapons and armour, along with other discoveries such as doors and houses, servants and slaves and the division into "big" and "little" people. As the handed-down stories of Earth become cloudier the religion that has formed around Angela has become stronger, and the societies of both Johnfolk and Davidfolk have shifted towards male domination and rule of the strongest. Starlight's new family are powerful but must constantly scheme to remain in control, knowing that they will be killed by their rivals if they fail. Meanwhile women are persecuted for spreading the Secret Story, advice supposedly passed down by Mother Gela to her female children teaching them about equality and the dangers of men who "believe the story is all about them." Eden is darker than ever and this novel introduces themes of power and sexual politics on a personal and societal level, while continuing to dissect the darker side of religion.

I found both Dark Eden and Mother of Eden to be compelling and addictive reads. The writing is very high quality and is capable of shocking the reader at times - punches are not pulled. Starlight's experiences with the Johnfolk are reminiscent of A Song Of Ice And Fire, and the writing style is similar in some ways, particularly the chapters narrated by different characters. while the setting of Eden reminded me of the Human Beings of Stephen Baxter's Flux, another tribe clinging on to their sense of humanity in an environment utterly different from Earth.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Darkness Falls [Review: Dark Eden]

The people of Eden live in simple shelters surrounding a circle of stones where, only five generations earlier, their ancestors arrived from Earth in a stolen starship. The entire tribe is descended from two Earth astronauts - Tommy and Angela - who remained behind on the planet while the other three attempted to return, according to the True Story re-enacted by the children every year. The colonists are able to eat many of the local lifeforms but they are living in a small pocket of warmth and life within a crater, surrounded by cold mountain walls, and as more children are born the food is already becoming scarce.

Dark Eden is the first of Chris Beckett's trilogy set on the sunless world of Eden, located across the galaxy and reachable only by a physics-defying starship that took a generation to build. While many characters are introduced, the novel centres on John Redlantern, a restless young man who chooses to leave the Circle to seek new sources of food, defying the wisdom of the elders who insist on living within reach of the landing site so that they can be found when rescue comes. 

The novel explores the way that historical events can grow into mythology or religion, as well as the inevitable battles between change and the status quo, and the difficulty in keeping to a well-intentioned moral system. In the process two worlds are created in deep convincing detail - the alien ecosystem of Eden, with bioluminous lifeforms all dependent on the "trees" that constantly pump up heat from the core of the planet; and the society of the humans with their Earth beliefs, their simple morals, child-like language and genetics - due to the small and incestuous gene-pool, genetic defects such as "batfaces" (cleft palate) and "clawfeet" recur in each generation. The title is apt - this is truly a dark vision of a desperate society.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Life Will Find A Way [Review: Life]

The crew of the International Space Station retrieve a capsule from Mars, completing a sample return mission and bringing a small quantity of soil into their orbital laboratory. The sample contains what appears to be Martian microbes - but are they dead or can they be revived? And should they?


Life is at heart a surprisingly traditional creature feature, perhaps even a tribute to classic films such as Alien, The Blob or even Roger Corman's Little Shop Of Horrors. There's a creature who grows in power and intelligence as it hunts down the humans who had the hubris to summon it into existence. The only truly original aspect of this movie is the setting, with the ISS re-imagined as the perfect modern-day haunted house - labyrinthine, claustrophobic, vulnerable and disorientating due to zero-gravity. The creature is also well-designed, developing from scene to scene like a Martian Audrey Two, and it definitely feels alien, although there's little attempt to explain its biology or evolution.

The only missing cliche is the kid who nobody believes when he tries to warn them - but since the Thermal Curtain Failure debacle of 1986 and subsequent abandonment of the Jinx robotics programme I don't think we're going to see any more children in low Earth orbit for some time. So instead we have to make do with the somewhat childish medical officer David, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, and the excellent multi-ethnic cast playing his fellow astronauts and cosmonauts, led by Olga Dihovichnaya as the station's Russian commander.

I enjoyed the thrills, shocks and clever moments of this movie, and I think it was well casted and acted, with a great setting. The ending is a bit predictable but I'll let that go for now. I would still recommend it to horror fans. It's a little gory in places so other cinemagoers may wish to exercise caution. This is however a popcorn movie - other than the themes of hubris, bravery and self-sacrifice common to the genre it's not really about anything and doesn't have anything particularly profound to say.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

C'est un petit pas pour un homme [Review: From The Earth To The Moon]

The members of the Baltimore Gun Club, bitterly disappointed by the outbreak of peace seek a new outlet for their passion - a cannon that will fire a shot to the Moon. Buoyed by public support across the US and around the world they defeat obstacle after obstacle in their quest to build and fire the cannon - until they are thrown an even greater challenge by a French explorer Michel Ardan who wishes to ride inside the shot and emigrate to the Moon, along with Barbicane, the President of the Gun Club and his lifelong nemesis Nicholls.

Jules Verne's novel, De la Terre à la Lune, was written in 1865, almost exactly 100 years before the actual Moon landing. The novel deals with the engineering and human challenges in designing, constructing and preparing the cannon, leading to the firing and then the voyage itself which is the subject of the sequel, Around The Moon. Verne is neither the first nor the only writer to send fictional astronauts to the Moon but most of these lunar romances rely on magical or unexplained methods of transport - Verne's genius was to come up with a credible means of getting there, indeed the novel could almost be used as an engineering manual for aspiring rocketeers. Amongst the challenges faced by the engineers include the shape, size and construction of the cannon and shell, the position, date and timing of the shot, mediating the shock of launch to prevent the crew from being crushed, providing air, water, heat and food to the crew, slowing the craft for landing, and how to monitor the voyage and landing from Earth. One challenge that is simply thrown aside is that of returning the astronauts - the plan is for a one-way trip.

Verne also takes on scientific uncertainties - the crew hope to find an atmosphere and water on the moon, but this is by no means certain as the authorities of the time held differing views, played out in Michel's debate with Nicholls.

Verne notably criticised H.G.Wells' novel, The First Men In The Moon written in 1901, a few years before Verne's death, for exactly this reason - Wells' voyage is made possible by a fantastic element (the gravity-defying Cavorite). However to give Wells his credit, when a few years earlier in 1897 he wrote of his Martians crossing the expanses of space to wage war on Earth, they did so in cylinders fired from a gun.

Like many science fiction writers Verne never saw his work as a prediction of the future - he is on record as saying that the ideas featured in his books are there to facilitate his character's journeys - for example, imagining a steerable hot air balloon as a way for his heroes to traverse the whole of Africa. Many of Verne's novels depict physical journeys and are full of speculative vehicles from floating islands to the formidable Nautilus.

However, intentional or not, when we compare Verne's novel to the actual NASA moon shot a century later, Verne was absolutely right about a lot of things:
  • Military engineering drives the space programme
  • The launch site in Florida, together with the intense competition between states to host the enterprise
  • The national and international excitement that follows the mission and turns its' figureheads into celebrities
  • The three-man crew
  • The 3-day voyage
Some aspects don't quite ring true in the same way - whoever heard of Americans obsessed with guns? Verne was also a little optimistic with the price-tag as well - his cost estimate is for 5 million dollars, whereas the Apollo programme cost about 25 billion. Of course, coming in a century late and five thousand times the original budget isn't so unusual for the space programme...

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Top Three Songs Inspired By Scientific Equations

"The Drake Equation" Helion Prime In third place: Helion Prime are a metal band who use science and sci-fi imagery the way other bands use Satanism. So this is a song about the Drake Equation. While I love the song, it only gets the bronze for two reasons: there's no video yet, and they don't actually sing the equation. With thanks to Big D of the Assorted Thoughts blog who first introduced me to Helion Prime.

"Mandelbrot Set" Jonathan Coulton In second place: Lyrics sadly became outdated as Benoit Mandelbrot passed away in 2010, but still... Here's a chalk-based animation that illustrates the song nicely, although it's a shortened version. Or if you prefer, there are about a million YouTube videos of fractal animations set to the song. Bonus points for spelling out the equation. Bonus points subsequently deducted as, obviously, the equation used in the song actually describes the Julia Set. D'oh...

"The First and Second Laws Of Thermodynamics" Flanders and Swann And the winner is: Flanders and Swann, those rapscallion 50s and 60s music hall entertainers. Michael and Donald were no strangers to science - songs about the mating habits of hippopotami made them the Discovery Channel of their day, while their revelations about the spiral growth of the honeysuckle (right-handed) and the bindweed (left-handed) were worthy of a PhD. Bonus points for spelling out and actually understanding the Laws, and for squeezing in the Third Law as well. There's no actual video of Flanders and Swann performing this so here's a version accompanied by random pictures and some bad jokes from teachers. Polar! Lol.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The Rocky Horror Evolution Centipede Hotel California Show [Review: A Cure For Wellness]

Received my invitation to the Evil Medical School reunion. Think I'll give it a miss this year - it would just be too embarrassing meeting up with classmates Dr. Evil, Dr. Heiter and Dr. Ledgard, and having to admit I've still not achieved anything on a par with their nefariousness.

Some of the comments below could be considered minor spoilers. Read on at your peril.


Dr. Volmer, head of the Volmer Institute, would fare better in comparison, although he's still no Dr. Frank'n'Furter. His institute, an aquatherapy centre for rich guilt-stricken investment bankers and suchlike hidden in the Swiss mountains that hides a sinister history and even more sinister purpose, is the setting for A Cure For Wellness directed by Gore Verbinski. Ambitious young banker Lockheart is sent there to bring back a senior partner currently "taking the waters" but discovers what first appears to be a strict and eccentric health regime but develops into a gothic myth.

A Cure For Wellness is that rare thing - a mainstream Hollywood horror movie that really goes there. I thought some early scenes were tame and predictable, but by the final third of the movie I was on the edge of my seat and even had to cover my eyes once or twice, which is definitely not consistent with my backstory.

This is partly due to some superb worldbuilding and cinematography - the Volmer Institute with it's maze-like steam rooms, swimming pools, green coridoors and treatment rooms is a beautiful example of the creepy hospital subgenre. Cast is also mostly excellent, headed by Dane Dehaan as Lockheart and the aptly named Mia Goth as mysterious orphan and "special case" Hannah. I hope that's a screen name. Jason Isaacs as Dr. Volmer mostly hits the right note and is convincing as a threat, but sometimes veers a little towards pantomime villain. Supporting cast are excellent and it's nice to see an ensemble covering the whole age range rather than just pretty young students (yes, The Sand, I'm looking at you). Celia Imrie as the puzzle-obsessed Victoria stands out.

This film reminded me of other creepy-hospital or medical horror films, and there may be some deliberate tributes going on here. This does mean that at least the first third of the film feels unoriginal. The setting is three parts Rocky Horror to one part Hotel California - it's spelled out to Lockheart over and over that no-one ever leaves. Unnecessary. As well as Rocky Horror, at its best the film channels The Skin I Live In or Evolution, but there's also a hint of The Human Centipede, and even one or two scenes harking back to The Dentist. As with Evolution, there's a creature element; but where Evolution is a French Japanese puzzle-box to be unpacked slowly, here the creature's role in the horror is spelled out in detail and perhaps shoved down the viewer's throat - this is not an understated or subtle film. The last part of the film switches from horror a little too far into action - Lockheart almost becomes a martial arts-type hero at one point, which jars a little as there's no prior evidence his yuppie character has any fighting ability.

Overall this film is flawed in a few places but it's still a well-crafted horror movie - proof that Hollywood is still capable of creating something artistic, scary and utterly bonkers.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Boy You Turnin' Me [Review: Upside Down]

Adam and Eden, the hero and heroine of French film “Upside Down” are star-crossed lovers, the poor boy and the rich girl. Just like Romeo and Juliet, Laura and Alec or Megashark and Giant Octopus, they live in different worlds – no, they literally live in different worlds, one suspended above the other and each with its’ own gravity. 

When Adam (Jim Sturgess) last saw Eden (Kirsten Dunst) she was falling upwards towards her own world and to her death.  Years later, when Adam discovers that Eden is still alive and working for Transcorp, a mysterious company whose offices link the two worlds, he comes up with a crazy plan to win her back.



Adam and Eden strive to escape the limitations of their societies and geometries, so Upside Down is Science Fiction.

“Upside Down” tells a simple and rather traditional story of love across the class divide, with a crude and obvious use of metaphor. Good performances from Sturgess and Dunst can’t cover over the lack of depth in the writing. I don’t care. Like Tron: Legacy, Mad Max: Fury Road and Daybreakers, this film is an example of near-perfect worldbuilding. It would work with or without the humans, although arguably any film where Kirsten Dunst kisses someone upside down is by definition a good film. The genius of “Upside Down” is the extraordinary environment of the twin worlds. It's thought out, designed and filmed in a way that every scene is visually striking, and every detail of every scene tells a chapter of the story, the history of the characters and their societies - a story far more rich and nuanced than the melodramatic script.