Monday, 29 December 2008

What about the crew (part two)

Two more capital ship sims:

Star Trek Bridge Commander definitely deserves a mention here: the slow, heavy movement gives the feel of a capital ship even though this is essentially a very simple mission-based combat sim. In addition this is very much a Star Trek capital ship: combining immense weapon power and other high-tech with vulnerability (computers emitting smoke and sparks at the tiniest blow); also many of the combat sequences in the films and Next Gen TV series do feel very consistent with combat in STBC. Interaction with crew is particularly good here; there's a real sense of actually ordering people and teams to carry out work; each character has a tiny amount of autonomy (the First Officer raises shields when you are attacked; helm and tactical stations carry out their own combat maneuvers; engineering starts prioritising repair works etc.) Combat is particularly immersive - as the action unfolds crew members are constantly calling out status and damage reports for your own ship or the target. Outside combat the game is much more limited. Crew are fixed - there's a disappointing mission when your tactical officer is replaced by a Klingon. Hoping to see braver, riskier or even suicidal tactics I was disappointed as combat remained unchanged apart from a slightly dodgy Klingon accent (I don't remember any Scottish Klingons, although I suppose lots of planets have a North). I played this game with a Game Commander voice recognition set - if you try this, don't use the packaged command set, search for the better, fan-produced file on the Net.

Homeworld: conjures up the feeling of commanding a capital ship and fleet (although no crew element apart from background radio chatter) Much of the immersion comes from the attention to graphical detail - supply ships and fighters dock smoothly with motherships and maneuver to avoid collision with each other as they enter formation.

So what I'd like is to hire crewmembers from Frontier to man the Homeworld ships, interact with them through the Bridge Commander interface and watch them live and work as in Battlecruiser. I don't ask for much...

What about the crew?

I've played a number of space sims looking for a way to live out the space-opera experience (think Star Trek, or even better David Weber's Honor Harrington series). I'm not hugely interested in mission-based fighter sims, however many wingmen you get - what I'd like is to be able to captain a large, complex capital ship, to be able to make both military and non-military decisions, and to manage crew dynamics. My search so far:

Frontier series: allow you to interview, hire and fire crewmembers who have names and faces; they occasionally quit of their own accord; the offer of work on one bulletin board may correspond to a missing persons or wanted notice elsewhere. However we're only usually talking about three to seven crew; and apart from remove the chocks at take-off they don't seem to do all that much. This is also not really a capital ship game as in the Elite universe the small one-ship import-export entrepeneur is king (think Only Fools and Horses in space) however Frontier is the only game that gets ship choice right: it's not about working your way up to the biggest, fastest, blingiest ship with the most weapon ports, it's about specialization and the right sized hull - that enormous cargo-hauler is great for profitable trading routes or exploration, but will be too slow for a high-speed parcel courier or an assassin overtaking his marks in hyperspace. The equipment you need e.g. cabins for a passenger ship, takes up so much of the hull space that you can't afford to be a generalist.

Battlecruiser series: larger crew complement, varied roles, crewmembers actually seem to do their jobs, move around the ship and come on and off duty. The ship feels like a capital ship, particularly as you can scramble fighters and shuttles to deal with some situations. However only bridge crew and fighter pilots have any names or personality and they are fixed - you clone them if they die; other crew members can be hired at space stations but are just numbers.

Both series were let down by bugs and other issues around release. BC should have been closer to what I was looking for but FFE was in fact much more enjoyable and immersive despite the bugs.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

The Ladies Vanish

Flightplan (2005) is a re-make of The Lady Vanishes (1938), linked by a common theme - the disappearance of a travelling companion and doubt as to whether she existed at all; the same plot device is used in both films to resolve this highly paranoid middle phase of the plot, and both lead to straightforward action climaxes. Flightplan isn't quite science fiction - although it's set on a futuristic, advanced airliner, this doesn't have a huge impact on the plot.

Hitchcock's film is hard to fault - I found the comic relief sequences tended to jar with the rest of the film but overall The Lady Vanishes is very effective psychodrama. Flightplan is seriously flawed - supposedly post 9/11 however this is only true superficially - a knee-jerk reaction for many of the passengers is to blame a group of "suspicious" Arabs for the mysterious happenings. For some reason these curious characters are called upon to apologise to Jodie Foster later in the film - I'm trying not to think too hard about what's being said symbolically here. Once the mystery is uncovered things actually degenerate into the kind of high-altitude shenanigans that could only really happen before 9/11 as these days the plane would probably have been shot down about half an hour before the end of the film. And, this is a newly designed, high security plane. You can't get in or out of the cockpit - but it seems you can easily get from the toilet cubicles into the cargo space (admittedly if you, the heroine, happen to have designed the plane).

For all this, the tension is maintained by the quality of the acting and camerawork, making excellent use of a large but claustrophobic set.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Rossums Universal Robots remake?

Sorry. I'd love to see a cinematic re-make of this play, the Czech origin of the word "robot," but I doubt there's one on the cards.

Never mind - there are other ways to get your robot fix. Hidden amongst the trillions of pop videos out there are some brilliant pieces of short film. I have several non-sci-fi favourites but here's a sci-fi classic: Believe by the Chemical Brothers.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

L'extra terrestre

A few years ago I was in Paris during a rainstorm and took shelter in a cinema. The film was the re-release of E.T., dubbed into French. I previously saw ET at age 5, a formative experience for me. The update is thankfully minimal, just a few tweaks to the special effects.

Firstly, watching ET as an adult is an eye-opening experience as you can make sense of the behaviour of the adults in the film. For example I had no idea what the grown-ups were doing to ET after he died, the first time - now I can clearly see that, in a gesture of hopelessness at his alien physiology, they are following a standard advanced life support/resuscitation protocol. The film is written for children, and perfectly creates the sense - to a child - of a scary and perplexing adult world.

Secondly, dubbing the film into a language which I can use to only a small extent made absolutely no difference to the film. It could have been in Chinese, Linear B, BSL or filmed as a silent movie - the visual language of the film is so powerful and so clear that the script is more or less superfluous.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Production Values

I honestly believe that the presence or absence of Hollywood production values is not what decides the overall quality of a film. It's partly a trade-off - with a big budget you get undoubtedly more realistic and more demanding sfx throughout a film, better technical stuff generally, more famous actors etc. but you also get the problems - you have to keep all your investors happy and get the widest possible audience so you have to dumb down the film to the lowest common denominator, or change the ending to please the test audience (that means you, Little Shop of Horrors) or include characters to sell merchandise or computer games; also I think too many films rest on CGI at the expense of plot, dialogue and other character-driven stuff. Let's leave the sequels issue for now.

Indie films meanwhile are a very mixed bunch - lower budgets and production values sometimes compromise the vision but other times force the film-makers to innovate. It might be easier to stay true to your own ideas - or you might be even more dependent on your limited sources of money.

On a related subject I was thinking about the reasons people (like, say, the Asylum) might make derivative rather than original films - it's easy to be cynical about this. Here's a link to an interview with Sandy Collora who previously made a Batman fanfic short but is now working on a more original project. He talks quite frankly about getting more attention for his earlier work because it featured a known character - on the other hand by making it he developed skills and proved he could see a project through to completion, which must have helped when he was looking for support for his new feature.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Entries closed

The deadline for the Guardian competition has now passed with Human Touch up against a small number of other films - many far more surreal than amything we came up with. There won't be a judges' result until some time in the next month or so.

I had a great deal of fun making Human Touch, and also learned a lot about film-making, apart from the general truism about how much hard work goes into it. A few of these lessons were sadly learned too late for this production.

-save money on lighting
-never save money on microphones
-if your camcorder actually has lower resolution than your stills camera, don't use the camcorder
-never work with children, animals or furniture
-Windows Movie Maker is the most useless piece of software ever written
-Windows Movie Maker is the most fantastic piece of software ever written
-spotlights gradually slip downwards if you leave them
-keep all your locations near each other

I also learned that musicians are incredibly generous - I was very grateful for the music from the University of Illinois which was released under Open Audio/Creative Commons licensing, and for the kind offer from another musician Mary Mei to allow me to use one of her beautiful harp recordings - if only we'd had the time to use this it would have been perfect for the film.

Will I do this again? I hope so. There are some animation/CGI projects I'd like to see through next. I'm also still thinking about whether to enter the Sci-Fi-London 48 hour competition, and my co-collaborator has some projects I might help out on. Watch this space...

Friday, 19 December 2008

Drop the camera and run - again

A creature attacks the metropolis, survivors go on the run shooting everything on camcorder as they go. Sounds familiar? Monster, made by The Asylum and distributed by Lighthouse, is as close to a rip-off of a certain other monster movie as it is possible to get (even though it was released first!) and it set me wondering about why people make derivative films. Cloverfield itself actually has very high production values - this film clearly cannot afford the same values so this is a cheap attempt to mimic an expensive attempt to look cheap.

Having started with a negative point, I have to say I really enjoyed this film, although more in the way you might enjoy an amateur or fringe theatre production. There's a lot to learn here about how to make films on a budget - clever use of sound and camera angles to convey panicking crowds without actually showing any people, etc. I might try some of this if I make any more short films. Most of the film seems to have been made by a handful of people - actually I was surprised by how many names were on the credits!

The two stars are Sarah Lieving and Erin Sullivan. Sarah is apparently a regular at Asylum, Erin has only a few credits including "Transmorphers" (I wonder what that one's about...) They're both endearing and reasonable actresses - this film gets a lot of criticism at least on imdb but this is mainly because it's derivative. It's also fair to say that unlike a film with a larger budget, the pair pretty much have to carry the whole film - clearly there was only a budget for a few minutes of film with other actors, plus the brief action climax at the end, plus a few extra dollars for special effects, so most scenes just feature the two girls, and a lot of the action can't be shown so they have to rely on their acting skills to convey it. The whole shoot must have been hard work.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Human Touch

Several late nights and one system crash later, finished post-production so here's the film.

This will be an entry in the Guardian YouTube competition, based on a short story by Mark Ravenhill.

Creative Commons License

Human Touch is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

My definition is this...

What is sci-fi? Two answers:

a - it's a genre and is therefore defined in a circular way as being the books that are enjoyed by sci-fi fans, or written by sci-fi authors, or found in the sci-fi section of your local bookstore. The idea of what makes something sci-fi can change over time, and of course there is the possibility of disagreement or different perspectives.

b - John W. Campbell had this idea that a true science-fiction story could only have one difference from the real world - this could be a divergence from history (a Jonbar point) a change to the laws of physics, or some other invention or postulate; the story should explore the consequences of this one change. This makes science-fiction similar to the idea of gedanken-experiment (thought-experiment).

I prefer b personally: this excludes anything in the Star Wars / Star Trek area (fun though they are) and relegates them to fantasy, while confirming the status of Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo as classic science-fiction.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Preview frame

Still working on the 5-minute film. Here's a frame from the opening sequence. The CGI sequences aren't going to be too much trouble - it's editing the live ones that is keeping me up...

Monday, 8 December 2008

So far, so good

The shoot yesterday was long, surreal and (amazingly) successful - we managed to shoot every required live scene in the script in just seven hours, including setting up and dismantling lighting in three different locations. Early review of our footage suggests the sci-fi concepts actually look OK, no people animals or furniture harmed and no equipment deposits lost. Also we only had to break into one location Ed Wood-style. Our cast of volunteers were superb and very willing to go along with what must have seemed very eccentric directions. I've also learned a great deal about the difficulties, particularly around lighting, camerawork and continuity - if we do this again it will be faster and better (although probably not cheaper).

I don't want to say anything specific about the content of this 5-minute sci-fi epic yet. The submission deadline for the competition is next week and there's still the CGI animation and the editing job to do. There's still time for things to go wrong but I'm cautiously optimistic. I'll post some teaser stills during the week and a YouTube link as soon as we've submitted.

In the past few weeks I've been watching some very low budget film and TV, partly with an eye to this project, and reading up on guerilla film-making. Now I know what it feels like to shoot for a 5-minute project, I have the greatest respect for anyone who completes an amateur, indie or low-budget feature-length film.

Answers to Star Wars quiz.

I'm sure you got them all:

1: A New Hope
2: Empire Strikes Back
3: Revenge of the Sith
4: Attack of the Clones
5: Return of the Jedi
6: The Ewok Adventure


Thursday, 4 December 2008

Back down to earth

I'm now back online but have had to re-activate my old computer until my new Vista-compatible router arrives. Why is Vista so much less powerful than XP? It reminded me of the film Robocop 2. This was a disappointment after the sharp satire and effective horror of the first film but was worth watching for the highly symbolic face-off between Robocop (running on MS-DOS) and Robocop 2 (Windows 3.1) - I often think that if Robocop had won in real life things would look very different now.

One of the reasons I started writing this blog was to try and get myself back into a more creative frame of mind in general, as I'm often guilty of coming up with ideas but not seeing them through. Currently trying to get things together for filming a sci-fi short this Sunday - spent last night trying to build a greenscreen and arrange lighting hire.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Quiz - Star Wars films

There may be some disruption this week as I replace my desktop. I'll post anyway if I can get to a cybercafe or some alternative, and I hope to be back on the sub-ether band in a few days.

Meanwhile here's a quick quiz. I'm not too obsessive about lists, but let's see if you think the way I do: place the six Star Wars films in order of quality, starting with the best. I'll post my choices in a few days.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Real life sci-fi: Čapek was right

Czech playwright Karel Čapek coined the phrase "robot" for a mechanical worker in his 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). This play sees the robot workers rise up against their human masters and take over the world, but be careful about interpreting this as a West-style disaster epic - firstly, this is post-revolution, USSR so the robots are the good guys in a Marxist, proletariat versus bourgeoisie sort of way; secondly Čapek is an indiscriminate satirist and I don't think anyone in any of his plays is excused the sharp edge of his pen.

It seems Čapek may have been on to something. While computers get their digital hands on our companies and transport networks, the robots are making their move too. While our attention has been distracted, over the last few years robots have quietly taken over the choiciest human jobs. I mean, now robots can be camel jockeys, conductors, wine tasters, seals, fishes or sharks - I mean, what does that leave for us?

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

New Interzone!

Highlights from issue 219:

Butterfly, Falling At Dawn - a short story by Aliette de Bodard, set in an alternative history where Aztec culture survived the European invaders becoming Greater Mexica. The plot here is a fairly straightforward whodunnit set in the near future - it's the characters and the setting that make this story stand out.

The editorial takes issue with "positive sf's cheerleaders" and makes it clear that, at least in Interzone, sf shouldn't ignore crises, or focus on technological fixes. Not sure if I agree or not. A change to the universe, say the introduction of a new tech, creates moral implications and potentials for accident or misuse - but the potential for good, particularly the most imaginative extrapolations, is also there to be explored. And there's a lot of negative sf that just seems to rehash the same 1984 scenario with minor variations. From a literary point of view I do accept there's a need for a certain amount of angst or discomfort to make a plot interesting. I just think sci-fi still has the potential to inspire as well as scare, and should be a place to find new and exotic ideas of any kind.

Tony Lee reviews the Colour of Magic DVD. Some quotes: "This is not an objective review...," "I have developed a numbingly phobic, debilitatingly allergic reaction to gurning wizards in floppy hats," "A pox on it's rancid cheesy cliches, lame sightseeing gags, telegraphed Tolkien twists, desperately overworked bits of aimless busyness, solipsistic remarks and throwaway pantomime blathering."

Monday, 24 November 2008

Real life sci-fi: advances in computing

On a snowy day a couple of years ago I was waiting at a station for a train no doubt delayed by adverse weather. The station's computerized announcement system relayed changes in the estimated time of arrival at regular intervals. Finally, in the same spliced-together female voice it made the following announcement: "On behalf of South East Trains I would like to apologise for the cancellation of the 10.20 train to Tonbridge" (The train details have been changed).

I can think of a number of explanations for this curiously personal announcement:

1. The computer is indeed responsible for scheduling trains and is taking responsibility for the decision, made by itself and possibly overruling human advisors, to cancel the train.

2. The computer is acting as a kind of confessor, having taken responsibility for the decision from its' human colleagues at South East after they have confessed their sins to it.

3. The computer, while not actually having taken the decision, has gained awareness of the inconvenience for its cold and frustrated passengers, and has become guilt-struck.

Any of the above imply a computer with an impressive level of emotional intelligence and self awareness way beyond anything I've heard of outside science fiction. Conversely, it hasn't escaped my attention that the computer might simply have been programmed to speak in this grammatically and contextually inappropriate way. In this case, if the apology is automatically generated or someone has pushed the "Apologise" button on their keyboard, but no apology has actually been spoken, does it count?

This event reminded me to stay on the lookout for signs of computers insidiously taking over the world. Today I came up against another computer - I was sent an inconvenient delivery time for a new desktop, and when I phoned a call centre in Limerick to rearrange it I was informed, by a woman with a beautiful but fear-tinged voice, that the decision to deliver at this time had been taken by a computer, and that there was no-one in the entire delivery company who had the authority to overrule it. With the UK news agenda dominated by Wossygate and Sargentgate I may have missed coverage of a robot revolution in the Republic of Eire.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Real life sci-fi

I read here that astronauts on the International Space Station are currently searching for a spider that escaped from an on-board experiment. Once again life imitates art, in this case one of my favourite fx films Spiders (2000) which begins with Mother-In-Law running amok on board the space shuttle.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Hothouse and Evolution

As Hothouse continues, Gren and his companions encounter more carnivorous plants but also some parasitic and symbiotic human -plant interactions. This book is bursting with original ideas and different ways of thinking about change or about the nature of humanity, consciousness, intelligence. At the same time it's a great action/survival/horror tale.

The symbiotic scenarios also reminded me of Stephen Baxter's novel Evolution. This follows the story of mankind and our biological ancestors from the eras of the dinosaurs onwards, each chapter telling the story of animals at a different evolutionary stage. This is extremely informative about evolutionary biology but is no dry textbook - in early chapters, gaps
in the fossil record allow Baxter to playfully include kilometer-wide pterodactyl "air whales" and some other surprises. Baxter follows the development of hominids and humans and is interested in the origins of human emotion, thought, behaviour and society rather than, say, the discovery of fire or the wheel. However the origins of painting, religion and sailing become part of the plot. Baxter also pulls no punches in documenting the destruction of the environment and the extinctions that have characterized all of human history, not just the modern era. The story extends through a near-future calamity into an eerie Hothouse-like scenario as the human era wanes.

I was struck by Baxter's description of the wide variety of human-like primates that lived side by side (although not necessarily in peace) until the emergence of humanity as the dominant species.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Spiders from Mars - the novel

Those of you old enough to remember Isaac Asimov might also have fond memories of reading through a novel or short story to discover the twist at the end of the tale. This device was popular in its time but is far too tame for the Tiffany-twisted mind of Alastair Reynolds, author of Revelation Space, who instead packs at least two twists into each paragraph. No-one is who, or what they seem, and everyone has a hidden agenda. The plot centres on conflicts between different groups of humans with different attitudes to modifying their bodies or minds; alien species and artefacts are present and central to the plot but in a more mysterious way.

It's not perfect. Few of the characters are likeable (or dislikeable) - mostly they're just bad guys trying to out-bad each other. It's worth sticking with Reynolds though as characterisation improves significantly through the later novels, and there are a few more plot twists ahead too... Easter-egg fans will enjoy looking out for Bowie references and other musical influences.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Kew Gardens - the novel

Billions of years in the future, when the Sun is big and red and close to death, who will be there to see it? H.G. Wells in The Time Machine explores this scenario briefly, imagining a bleak future inhabited by crablike creatures. Jack Vance is more optimistic - humans live on although past their prime.

I'm currently reading Hothouse by Brian Aldiss. Like Jack Vance Aldiss sets his novel in the distant future where the sun is close to dying. This is sci-fi and fantasy of a different kind though - the earth now belongs to the carnivorous and fast-moving descendents of the plants, with tree-running humanity one of just a handful of surviving animal species. It's a harsh reality - the members of the human tribe constantly face danger and death, while the vicious battles between different plants make the animal kingdom, or the human heyday, seem tame by comparison. Aldiss creates a world with detailed and internally consistent descriptions of the flora and fauna, and uses it to tell a story about the necessity, the inevitability and the fear of change. There is a great deal to uncover as the reader explores the setting, although much of this is lost on the protagonists who are only interested in their own survival.

Aldiss' setting has been criticised as implausible, but this is missing the point of the powerful and eerie central symbol of this novel - the tidally locked Earth and Moon and the webs of the Traversers connecting the two.

Friday, 14 November 2008

The End Times and The Times Before The End Times

Dying Earth by Jack Vance: like China Mieville's novels, this is a heady mixture of fantasy and sci-fi concepts. Set in the far future, with the sun relatively close to dying, the stories revolve mainly around sorcerors battling amongst themselves or seeking to restore or rediscover magical powers from a previous Golden Age, however in some stories they also come across evidence of the planet's high-tech past. The book lies somewhere between short story collection and novel - the six chapters are stand-alone shorts or novellas (an artefact of the sci-fi magazine culture) but characters and events do connect from story to story and there is a vague sense of an overall structure. The fantasy is orc-free with some originality in depiction of the demons and monsters that inhabit the dying Earth.

I came to Jack Vance through a newer author, Matt Hughes who has written several novels and short stories set in "the times before the End times," generally agreed to be earlier in Jack Vance's Dying Earth timeline. Hughes' stories again combine sci-fi and fantasy concepts, and are set in a decadent age where almost everything is known; humanity has expanded from a kingdom "The Archonate" into a collection of worlds "The Spray." Hughes writes with an extraordinary turn of phrase that I've only seen two other authors carry off - one is Patrick O'Brian, the other Charles Dickens. I can't quite put my finger on what these authors are doing but you can almost taste the sentences. Hughes also takes in some unusual but fascinating topics in addition to his world's decadent politics and con-artistry; many stories feature the adventures of noonauts travelling into and out of Jung's collective unconscious.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Drop the camera and run - the movie

Cloverfield is in many ways the opposite of Kate and Leopold - this film really should not work. It's a one trick gimmick - a monster movie but how original - it's all on a camcorder... By rights you should be bored after about eight minutes, even with the gene deficiency, and spend the rest of the movie shouting "drop the camera and run! drop the camera!"

This film worked for me for two reasons - firstly, it's only 90 minutes long (as it's supposedly recorded on an analogue camcorder cassette) but perfectly paced, and secondly, the director JJ Abrams is actually pretty good. It takes serious professionalism to simulate amateur filmmaking this way and still produce decent atmosphere and drama, and JJ's sense of timing is good enough to occasionally deliver actual shocks and thrills, something sadly rare in the horror genre.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Review: SFL 48-hour film challenge

I recently spent a three-day period with a total of one or two hours sleep, struggling to keep up with various bits of work and to prepare a presentation in time for a meeting (trying to simplify and explain a really complex scientific report). By the end of this period I was seriously caffeinated and running without any internal clock.

In between bouts of work I kept myself sane by watching 5-minute films from the Sci-Fi London 48-hour film challenge. This was part of the 2008 festival, and I previously saw the winning entry, Factory Farmed, as it was screened before the premiere of Chemical Wedding. The win is well deserved - what stands out is the cinematography, with clever use of colour and location
to build highly atmospheric shots, together with a sense of mystery. I recognized the Westminster tube station doubling as a high-tech laboratory - wonder how they arranged this?

Most entries don't have this level of camerawork or atmosphere but are still highly enjoyable - there's a ubiquitous sense of fun, most teams seem to have got the main idea of this kind of film-making (keep it simple!) and have produced something watchable. There's a lot of originality and wit too. I particularly enjoyed Lesson One, by team Too Many Monkeys, about a unique approach to advertising and marketing. Each team was assigned a piece of dialogue to include - this team got "You could win £1000 to spend on your mistress" and the film pretty much takes this as its starting point and riffs on it. You won't like every film but at 5 minutes each you can find the ones you like fairly quickly.

The films can be found here. There's also a brief documentary about the competition.

I was hugely surprised to discover that my presentation at work came together and was very well received despite my brain running at about 5% capacity. I intend to enter next year's 48-hr challenge if I can get a crew together. [edited 17.4.09 - did actually enter! woo!]

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Base-jumping - the movie

I rarely take a strong dislike to anything even vaguely sci-fi. Here's an exception I'd like to share - a seriously misjudged attempt to cross-fertilize genres. I found this disappointing as it really should have worked. There are plenty of good time travel films. Twelve Monkeys and Back to the Future for example. For that matter there are plenty of good romantic comedies. When Harry Met Sally. Breakfast at Tiffany's... er... And the concept here is superb - madcap scientist discovers a way of travelling back and forwards in time by jumping off bridges at exactly the right moment; he accidentally brings the inventor of the lift (!) back to the present where he struggles to understand his environment - and negotiates the pitfalls of twentieth century dating when he falls for a modern-day gal.

It takes real talent to take this starting point and screw up so badly and I take my hat off to this film which is too dull even for a Golden Raspberry. Subplots are introduced and abandoned (as the inventor is removed from the timeline lifts everywhere start to malfunction - but then they don't again) and while the base-jumping time-travel conceit should be a great metaphor for taking risks in life, this is ignored for the most part then used far too crudely at the end. Yes. I watched to the end, by which time I felt like jumping off a bridge myself but feared I might find myself back at the start of the film.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Literary vs non-literary science fiction

What's the difference?

For the purposes of this post, let's take The Time Traveller's Wife, Never Let Me Go and The Handmaid's Tale as examples of literary science fiction (sorry, Margaret). I'm not reviewing any of these here - I'll make a case for why everyone should read them another day.

Literary sci-fi novels that get a very wide readership and critical acclaim outside the sci-fi genre, still having sci-fi themes at their heart. They're usually acclaimed as being of quality authorship. I wouldn't question this but many people in sci-fi, fantasy and related genres also have a very high quality of writing. The style of writing can be deceptive - Stephen King may write brief MTV soundbite style chapters but there's a lot of depth to many of his books. I also find it hard to think of a single sci-fi book I've read that doesn't use sci-fi as a way to explore deeper issues and questions or at least to attempt this. I'll accept that this is often not true of films.

I've just finished reading Lifeboat. My final word - most of the book is perfectly paced, however in the last chapter there's suddenly a series of convoluted and unlikely plot twists - I think the enjoyment to be had from this book was definitely the journey rather than the destination. I was reflecting on this question as I started my next book - Jack Vance's classic The Dying Earth, a novel I've been meaning to read for ages - as I think the answer may be in the first chapter or even paragraph.

Basically, writers have audiences in mind when they write - and they try to direct the book towards them from the first word onwards. The authors of the three above novels all introduce the main themes of their novels - love and the agony of being apart, caring for each other and making sacrifices, and the role of women - in the first chapters, but they do so with only gradual hints at the sci-fi concepts to come. Dying Earth, on the other hand, begins outright as a fantasy novel with the protagonist's failing attempts to create magical life. This is an opening gambit to intrigue and draw in a sci-fi or fantasy reader - it worked for me! - but a more general reader might be turned away by this point. Perhaps they need some reassurance that the book is going to tackle Big Issues or reach Great Depths before they'll accept their six impossible things before breakfast.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Only Happy When It Rains

Sci-fi inspired the current Turbine Hall installation at the Tate Modern - TH.2058 by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. Many previous TH installations have a kind of sci-fi edge to them - for example the first in the series was Louise Borgeouis's giant spider Maman; they're also the more playful side of modern art, recent installations including a series of metal slides and a giant crack in the floor.

For TH.2058 the Turbine Hall has been converted into a shelter, complete with yellow and blue bunk beds, to protect Londoners from a perpetual rainstorm 50 years in the future. Sharing the space with the humans are giant versions of other works of art - including an even larger re-make of Maman, and the skeleton of some extinct mammal. At one end The Last Film is playing - a collage of film clips including sequences from some sci-fi classics including THX 1138, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Solaris, Soylent Green and so on.

The attention to detail makes walking through the shelter extremely evocative. Strange robotic insects stick to the walls with coloured lights on their backs. Books are littered around on the bunk beds, you can pick them up and leaf through. Naturally they include War of the Worlds and The Drowned World, as well as other apocalyptic classics. A radio is bolted to one of the bunk beds - someone is still broadcasting from somewhere else in the world. As you walk towards the exit the sound of dripping water gradually grows into the sound of the rainstorm outside.

Where are the people? Gallery staff are present wearing fluorescent jackets so could be the marshalls; otherwise the inhabitants have disappeared, leaving their books behind - or possibly we are cast as the survivors, getting used to our new living arrangements. The advantage of the Turbine Hall as an artistic space is that the artist can create really immersive experiences - much better than virtual reality - so this was my experience. The radio was a particularly poignant touch.

The descriptive leaflet explains that this is not purely a work of sci-fi but also continues themes Gonzales-Foerster has been working on over the last twenty years - as well as being a response to other works of art including those recreated here. This is still a cool experience for a sci-fi fan and, like the best art, evokes all sorts of emotions and thoughts as you pass through its shadow.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Lifeboat continued

A few chapters in and the book continues in the same, tense vein. Two strands of the book - the religious beliefs of the alien race, and the anti-slavery message, both feel cliched to the reader in 2008, although may have been less so at the time of writing. The appearance of the aliens would also fail to pass muster today - green BEMs that are actually green, monstrous and have bug-eyes... The plot however is handled adeptly, making good use of the closed setting, and the backstory is increasingly fleshed out - the slavery/class regime started as a temporary survival plan for an overpopulated Earth.

I wondered whether Harrison would slip an overpopulation subplot in - it was a regular theme in his solo novels e.g. Make Room Make Room, which led by way of a Charlton Heston film with a classic ending, to a scene in the Simpsons (episode: The Itchy and Scratchy Movie) where Homer, several decades into the future, enters a cinema and, on passing the kiosk, exclaims "Mmmmm, soylent green...."
Small picture was borrowed from somewhere on the Internet. It's a good cover, if I get the chance I'll post a better picture.

Monday, 3 November 2008

From Homeworld to Turner

If you're looking for inside gossip on films or games still in production, or secrets of the Lost spin-off (working title "Ah, there you are again - had me worried") you may or may not be disappointed by this column - if so, just type "sci-fi blog" into Google. If you want acerbic, contrary and offensive yet brilliant film reviews read Mutant Popcorn, found in Interzone magazine. Because I have the sci-fi gene deficiency, I am rarely disappointed and will usually find a retrospective justification for enjoying just about any film. I almost never take a strong dislike to anything (but more about "Kate and Leopold" another time.)

I wanted to mention Homeworld, an old PC war game. This was welcomed with seriously good reviews and awards on its release but is now old news. What I wanted to point out was, apart from the simple gameplay and smooth interface, I was awe-struck by the graphics - despite polygon counts and texture densities so low you could run this game with only (only!) an 8-bit graphics card, the game conjured up images of spaceships that could easily fit on the cover of a Golden Age paperback.

Which leads neatly to the topic of cover art: science-fiction readers more than anyone else should avoid judging a book by its cover - basically because the covers are so good. Here's Alien Way, a book I enjoyed greatly while being fully aware of its lack of any merit whatsoever (oh God not another power-crazed misunderstood anti-hero). The cover shows a vast wrecked hulk of a starship, towed by a smaller, sleeker ship. Unusually, the scene actually relates directly to an event early in the book - a wrecked human ship recovered and towed to an alien homeworld.

I don't even know the artist - as in those innocent days the artist didn't even get a mention in the book. The composition reminded me of something, and a few Google searches later I found it - Turner's "Fighting Temeraire" depicting the decomissioning of a sailing ship, towed by a steam-powered tug, symbolizing the end of the Age of Sail and the rise of new technology - this is appropriate given the book's theme of the conflict for supremacy between two intelligent races.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

All-time most dystopian dystopia

The competition to create science-fiction's most dystopian dystopia of all time was won, permanently, in 1977. George Orwell's 1984, the bookies' favourite, came in second, pipped in the post by this short but powerful novel of misogynism and post-apocalyptic survival. Suzy McKee Charnas went on to write a more upbeat sequel about women who like horses... a lot... meanwhile if you want to read about near-future enslavement and dehumanization of women, but don't want too harrowing an experience, you can stroll gently to the end of the world in non-science-fiction science-fiction classic The Handmaid's tale by Margaret Attwood.

You can read Mish's review of the Handmaid's Tale here:

Tennant resignation

I heard yesterday that David Tennant has resigned as Doctor Who. This decision leaves me with divided feelings - on the one hand, having a Doctor prepared to stay the course for so long is unusual and welcome; on the other hand, regeneration and the associated change in personality (and appearance) is central to the whole Doctor Who thing (even though it was only invented to keep the series going after William Hartnell) - by staying in one persona for so long this aspect of the Doctor as an alien is lost. Do we as viewers build a relationship with the actor, or with the Doctor? The divided feeling suggests that the answer is probably both.

Also fair to point out that in the first year of the revived series, the Doctor was Christopher Ecclestone. I enjoyed series one immensely and remember the disappointment at hearing that Ecclestone was leaving and that "Casanova" was to replace him... in fact, the regeneration was part of what gave series one it's dramatic structure and climactic ending.

But I want to end this post firstly with the point that with the 2009 special episodes with Tennant still to come, I'm actually talking about an event two years ahead as if it has just happened - how apt. Secondly, I'm just reflecting on how much I've enjoyed from the Tennant years - for instance right now I'm thinking of the thinly veiled references to Douglas
Adams (the dressing gown in the Christmas special, the 42 episode, the Starship Titanic episode...)

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Women and children first!

Just started reading "Lifeboat" by Gordon Dickson and Harry Harrison. I may have to review my opinion of the former writer - first chapter engages the reader effectively, introducing a society where a ruling class expects automatic, hypnotic obedience from the underclass; and setting up a claustrophobic life-raft environment following a disaster. I will send updates from this universe - hopefully it will live up to the promise of the first chapter.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Magician, Fourth Class, of the Night Watch

Night Watch is the first in a fantasy trilogy by Sergei Lukyanenko, translated from the Russian. The forces of evil have signed a truce and each side made arrangements to keep watch on the others and enforce the truce; the Night Watch is the good magicians etc. keeping tabs on the bad sorcerers and witches, and vice versa. Here are the IMDb links: and There's a third book, Twilight Watch, which may yet be filmed.

Night Watch and Day Watch have both been filmed by Timur Bekmambetov - and are absolutely bonkers, high energy experiences. Both films feature imaginative and utterly mad driving sequences (the Night Watch race across Moscow in a dump truck; the Day Watch witch Alicia drives a sports car along the sides of buildings etc.) The characters appear to be deliberately unfashionably dressed, a relief after the incessant product placement of, say, the Matrix or Bond series. However I could be wrong - this may actually reflect Moscow fashion. The films take elements from the books but tell slightly different stories, with different endings, and there are elements from the first two books in both films. Incidentally if you are watching with subtitles these are animated dramatically rather than just appearing at the bottom of the screen.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Virtual crime

I was going to write a review of Charles Stross' novel Halting State, a crime thriller that begins with a police team being called to investigate the theft of virtual goods from a MMORPG, when I read this recent story on the BBC website. You've probably seen it there or in the papers by now.

"Woman in jail over virtual murder.

"A woman has been arrested in Japan after she allegedly killed her virtual husband in a popular video game. The 43-year-old was reportedly furious at finding herself suddenly divorced in the online game Maplestory. Police say she illegally accessed log-in details of the man playing her husband, and killed off his character. The woman, a piano teacher, is in jail in Sapporo waiting to learn if she faces charges of illegally accessing a computer and manipulating data. She was arrested on Wednesday and taken 620 miles (1,000 km) from her home in southern Miyazaki to Sapporo - where her "husband", a 33-year-old office worker lives."

It's the 5-year sentence that makes this a serious story - in the UK you can still kill someone by dangerous driving, or under other circumstances falling short of murder, and receive a less severe sentence than this. Suspension of disbelief is sometimes necessary in the real world too.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Search for the sci-fi gene

I enjoy watching bad films.

I am sure I am not alone. For a start the films are out there - for every Escape from New York there are only too many Escapes from L.A. - so someone other than me must also be watching them.

I am increasingly convinced that the ability to sit through and enjoy these films may be a genetic flaw. It's not limited to film either but works for other media too - I inherited my interest in science fiction from my father and his collection of C.J.Cherryh (good) and Gordon R.Dickson (less good) paperbacks. Sometimes it's hard to put into words exactly what I'm getting out of a novel, watching a film or a TV show, or playing a PC game - the enjoyment is often accompanied by full awareness that the experience carries no merit whatsoever. My hypothesis is that there is a gene, the sci-fi gene, where inheritance of two deletions prevents the linkage between critical thought and emotional response to a film.

I should add I enjoy good films, books or games too - sci-fi or otherwise. There are plenty of sci-fi classics that really deserve their reputation even if they are only recognized within the genre. Terminator. There are also plenty of films that have some merit despite their shortcomings. The Star Wars sextet reminds me of a fireworks display. Some films have a great concept and may be worth watching despite serious deficiencies in acting or direction - Sim0ne, say; while others are inexplicably joyful. I am proud to be the owner of Spiders, Spiders 2, Octopus and Octopus 2 all in one box set.

I'm not looking for a cure for this affliction, but think the phenomenon merits further study. I'd love to hear of other people with unusually high tolerance for absolute crap delivered in a sci-fi wrapper.

Why a blog? In addition to reviews, occasionally I find myself thinking about the nature of sci-fi, sci-fi concepts and life itself, or I may share experiences of marginal relevance to sci-fi. It all makes sense to the holistic detective within me. When reviewing I sometimes find it helpful to compare books or films, this doesn't easily lend itself to a one-title review system. I'm writing for the pleasure of writing, and because I enjoy reading other articles and blogs on these topics.