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...)