Tuesday, 19 September 2017

What should Channel 4 do next? [Twitter poll]

Boyz n The Hood [Review: The Hood Maker]

Electric Dreams, Channel 4's season of Philip K. Dick dramas, begins with The Hood Maker. This drama is set in an alternate history where tension is rising between "teeps" (telepaths) and "normals". Honor (Holliday Grainger) is a teep recruited by police agent Ross (Richard Madden) to help in the search for anti-teep activists, but when she participates in an interrogation they uncover a trail leading to a group of militants with a secret.

The Hood Maker is a good start. Shot in atmospheric yellows and greens, it's a dystopia of slums and riots on the one hand, and a rising police dictatorship on the other. Grainger, fresh from her fresh-faced performance as Cormorant Strike's assistant Robin, acts her heart out as telepath Honor in a challenging role throwing her from innocence to powerful psychic to traumatised victim. Madden has no such range in his role but achieves something else - a decent portrayal of the everyman hero at the heart of so many PKD stories. The episode is well-written. Conceptual sci-fi works best when the unexpected consequences are explored - here, in a quite harrowing scene, a telepath is abused by a man who forces her to experience his disturbed fantasy. She has nightmares about it - and all the telepaths in the area share the nightmares.

Filmmakers have been plundering Philip K. Dick's legacy of paranoid sci-fi for years but Electric Dreams might be the first attempt to treat his short stories with respect. Usually PKD film adaptations - Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau for example - stretch the short story so far that the original plot and characters are barely recognizable, add shitloads of action and impose a completely new plot, creating a hybrid that may still be enjoyable but lacks the intensity or the irony of the original. Blade Runner is a pleasant exception to this rule- perhaps because it's adapted from a novel rather than a short story and so is cut rather than stretched. Presumably we can also thank Blade Runner for Electric Dreams - the fact that the sequel is about to open must have helped with the funding... 

On the basis of this first installment, Electric Dreams looks to be an exciting addition to the sci-fi anthology catalogue - up there with The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Black Mirror and, going further back in time, Tales Of The Unexpected.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Abyss Seeing You [Review: The Abyss Beyond Dreams]

Nigel Sheldon, the long-lived engineer responsible for the technology of the interstellar Commonwealth, is dispatched on a mission to the Void, a giant black hole-like artefact that is expanding and may threaten the galaxy. With the help of the alien Raiel he enters the void seeking the planet Querencia, but instead finds himself on a different planet Bienvenido where the descendants of a starship previously drawn into the Void have fought for thousands of years against the sinister Fallers.

As you can see it's hard to describe The Abyss Beyond Dreams in short sentences. This is a Peter F. Hamilton novel and as such it's of epic proportions - I can barely lift my Kindle. A novel of this length is a challenge to write or to read - it cannot be indulgent. There must be depth and complexity that justify the length, but it must maintain quality and the relationship with the reader throughout.

The Abyss rises to this challenge through the story of Bienvenido which is told through several viewpoints - the original colonists, their descendants thousands of years later, and Nigel Sheldon and his allies. It's a story of individuals living through and driving societal change in a time of revolution - not unlike Victor Hugo's novel Les Miserables. There are a few differences - Hugo dwells less on the flesh-eating alien mimics, for instance, but there are a lot of common themes too. I don't know if the endings are similar as reading Les Miserables proved to be like swimming through the overlong backstory for treacle. I can't help thinking that that novel would be much better if 95% of the plot were removed and the remaining few words were set to music... but I digress.

The plot of The Abyss is sufficiently complex and multi-layered. At its centre is a revolution which is not what it seems. The constant enemy, the Fallers, are also a good horror creation with their own mystery, although I did wonder why they only appear to have started their invasion when the humans arrived - by rights they should have already have established themselves and been ready with a welcoming party. Sheldon is an interesting character - deeply moral but willing to consider inhuman, terrible acts in order to achieve a greater end, he is the logical product of his long life and his ability to see the bigger picture.

The Abyss is part of a two-novel series set in parallel to the events of the Void Trilogy, many years later than the Commonwealth Saga novels. I previously reviewed The Dreaming Void here and my thoughts about novel length can be found here. These novels are all set in the Commonwealth, a civilisation like Iain M. Banks' Culture in some ways - citizens are biologically and technologically enhanced, interstellar travel and artificial intelligence are commonplace and society is organized around a very, very long life expectancy. Unlike the Culture, the Commonwealth is a continuation of Earth history and is primarily human-led. I enjoyed this return to the universe of the Commonwealth and look forward to the sequel Night Without Stars.


Thursday, 7 September 2017

One Million Years Before Skaro

Mount Teide is a volcano in central Tenerife, the highest of at least 400 volcanoes on the island (the exact number is unknown). The last eruption from this peak was in 1909 and it is currently dormant.
The peak is 3,718m above sea level. Ascent is by cable car and then a short walk up to the rim, although a permit is required for this final stage.
Teide is situated on one side of this large secondary crater. The area inside the crater is a barren landscape very different from the more fertile ground elsewhere on Tenerife - and this bleakness has made it a popular destination for film and TV shoots, fashion shoots and car adverts. The location doubled as the Dalek homeplanet of Skaro in "The Witch's Familiar", an episode of Doctor Who broadcast in 2015.

Teide was also the location for the 1966 epic One Million Years B.C. and the iconic slopes can be seen throughout the film, often overrun with stop-motion dinosaurs.

Monday, 28 August 2017

First Against The Wall When The Revolution Comes [Review: Robopocalypse]

I like humans. I like robots. But which is best? There's only one way to find out... A series of apparently accidental and unconnected deaths leads to the discovery that the robot revolution has already begun in earnest, and surviving humans must flee the cities that have become deathtraps as their appliances turn against them.

In "Robopocalypse" Daniel H. Wilson tells the story of a failed robotic war of independence from a position of robotics expertise - but this is not a dry textbook or theoretical AI journal article. The structure of the novel is also unusual. Clearly we are outsmarted and generally outclassed by our robot opponents, yet it is made clear from the start that the war is over and the humans have won. The story is told from multiple human viewpoints as a surviving A.I. researches critical events in the war and tries to understand humanity.

I found the early stages of the war most original and most horrifying - robotic cleaners and automated elevators conspire to kill the inhabitants of tower blocks, an ice-cream making machine turns on its owners, while packs of self-driving cars roam the streets hunting humans as prey. It's a little less original later as Terminator-style military drones join the fray but the plot remains interesting, and while it appears that the ending has been given away from the start, the actual endpoint is a little more complex and less predictable.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Science Fiction Double Eater [Reviews: Train To Busan and The Girl With All The Gifts]

In honour of the late George A. Romero, two modern-day zombie classics:


Train To Busan (부산행, Busanhaeng) is a Korean movie made in 2016. Workaholic fund manager, divorcee and useless dad Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) must reluctantly accompany his daughter Soo-an (Kim Su-an) by train from Seoul to Busan, returning her to live with her mother - on the day Korea succumbs to a zombie plague.

I have enjoyed Korean horror movies in recent years, particularly Thirst (vampire horror) and The Host (newt horror). I can only comment on the few I've seen, but I've found them intelligent, well-written and produced, and willing to tell stories about families and relationships that are different to those in western cinema - as a result they're often very moving, while there's still plenty of action, drama, shock and gore, and also humour with just the right amount of darkness.

I can report that Train To Busan is another enjoyable horror. The backstory is unoriginal, with a viral outbreak from a quarantined lab, by-the-numbers fast-variety zombies spreading across the country and a disparate group of heroes must rely on each other, get their hands dirty and learn bravery, selflessness or perhaps some manners, all the while heading for humanity's last fortress. However the film works, making intelligent use of the train setting at every level - as an environment for tension-building and close-quarters action, as a microcosm for society allowing for satire and social commentary, and also as a device to control the momentum and pace of the movie. The ensemble cast are excellent. How do you help the audience warm to an unlikeable character and believe in his epiphany? Give them a real villain for comparison, in the form of Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung) a company boss for whom the crisis brings out new depths of selfishness.


The Girl With All The Gifts is an adaptation of the excellent novel by M.R. Carey, the story of Britain overrun by "hungries" and of a young girl, Melanie, brought up in a school on a military base, strapped to a chair and watched over by armed soldiers as she attends her lessons with the kindly Miss Justineau. Just as Melanie's nature and her potential fate at the base are becoming clearer, the defences are breached and Melanie, Miss Justineau, single-minded scientist Dr. Caldwell and a group of soldiers make their escape in the chaos, heading for (yet again) humanity's last fortress, on the way facing moral dilemmas, character-building experiences and social commentary.

In order to turn this complex, thoughtful zombie novel into a film, the plot is greatly accelerated and several characters and subplots are simply removed - there's no mention of the tribes of human scavengers, for example. There are also some differences between the characters, in particular the racial backgrounds of Melanie and Miss Justineau have been reversed. This might be a political statement or a non-issue. The parts are taken by two extremely talented actresses - Sennia Nenua and Gemma Arterton, and there's very strong chemistry between the two.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Parenting: never easy [Review: Star Wars Identities]

London is having a good summer for science fiction events. Star Wars Identities is an exhibition of Star Wars costumes, props, models and concept art at the O2 arena, and themed around the parallel life stories of Luke and Anakin and the factors that influenced their personalities - throwing in the odd psychology lesson. Possibly it takes itself a little too seriously in this regard, it would have been perfectly OK just to have put all the genuine movie material on display without this extra dimension of psychology, but it does give the exhibition a bit of structure and it's quite fun too - along the way visitors create their own Star Wars character and backstory with the help of a hi-tech system involving a bracelet sensor used to make life choices at each step.

This is an excellent collection, covering all the films and including everything from the most famous costumes and droid or starship models right through to for some reason the frieze from Senator Palpatine's office, with many exhibits accompanied by concept artwork. Star Wars Identities has been at the O2 Arena since November 2016 and will be there until September 2017.

Well indeed.

Jawa-jawa is better than wara-wara.

Lost in your (Jabba) eyes.

Admire the unbelievably detailed modelling on this Imperial destroyer.

Concept models for the main hero of the Star Wars saga - it's lucky the director chose carefully, otherwise this character might have lacked gravitas and come across as a bit trivial and annoying. In fact the concept work displayed in this exhibition includes some fascinating could-have-beens - including character sketches of an early, female Luke character and a younger, gnome-like Yoda.

You can never have enough spaceships. Mon Calamari cruiser in the foreground.