Saturday, 31 January 2009

Review: Chemical Wedding

Looking forward to Sci-Fi-London 2009 - here's a review of a film that premiered at the 2008 festival: Director Julian Doyle admitted quite openly at the Q&A afterwards that this was to make sure it opened to a reasonably welcoming reception. Good decision. This is a hard film to swallow if you're not a science-fiction or fantasy fan, do not possess a fairly open mind and a sound sense of humour. However it's not a SFG-deficiency film - if you're able to suspend disbelief this is an original and well-made film with much to recommend it. Alastair Crowleigh, famous historical occultist, is resurrected in the body of a mild-mannered lecturer and continues his campaign of mischief and black magic in the present day.

The Q&A was fun too. We, the audience in the second of two screens, were initially banished to the second screen however due to a technical fault or some magical mischief we weren't able to participate in the discussion by videolink so we sneaked into the aisles of the first screen. Writer Bruce Dickinson (Bruce Dickinson!) and star Simon Callow were clearly enjoying themselves and both have infused the film, and the resurrected character of Alastair Crowleigh with a strong sense of wicked fun. No doubt the excellent direction played a part in this but Julian seemed keen to portray the film more as a serious attempt to link the worlds of science and the supernatural. All three seemed united in their fascination with Crowleigh and their desire to bring his life to their audience - the film succeeds in this. It was a shame not to hear more from the other actors as they were present at the screening, although Lucy Cudden was understandably unwilling to go into too great detail about that scene with the fax machine.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Choose Your Own Dystopia (TM)

London's cultural and tourist scene is fairly sci-fi friendly at present. I posted about the last Turbine Hall installation here, both a sci-fi experience in itself and a nostalgic collection of sci-fi books and film clips. More recently I visited the London Transport Museum, creeping past a group of stormtroopers in Picadilly Circus en route (it was a sci-fi kind of day).

LTM is mainly concerned with the history of bus, tram and tube travel. However the last exhibit, just before the exit ramp, is an installation that allows you to make choices about present day society, then mixes and matches elements to generate a version of society in 2055. The focus is predictably climate change and the threat of "energy shock" however the scenarios generated are wide-ranging and all very dystopian - ranging from an always-on society where people live and work in their car-offices, constantly moving under computer control, through a 1984-style scenario where the poor sell their carbon credits to the rich and everyone lives in fear of the carbon police who monitor your every footstep - to the other extreme where people live in ruined office blocks and skyscrapers, growing crops up the walls and living sustainable, recyclable lives but long-distance travel is all but forgotten and anarchy/gang law rules.

You can use the Future Generator online on the LTM website here.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Crash and Verne

A review of another Asylum mockbuster: Journey to the Centre of the Earth is based (predictably loosely) on Jules Verne's classic novel - released in the UK under the title Journey to Middle Earth, and of course timed for release alongside the recent imax-3D film starring Brendan Fraser. They've succeeded in confusing IMDb who have mixed up pictures from both films. This film is a mix of themes from the original novel and from another movie, The Core, as the crew of a drilling machine race to rescue a teleport team stranded in a dinosaur-populated world below the Earth's crust. It's all good harmless fun and reasonably well made - acting, effects and cinematography are all adequate if not completely convincing, and unlike Monster all three are consistent throughout the film - although don't expect to see this one nominated at the Academy.

Just one plea though - can we now move on from parasitic monsters? It was fantastic and original in Alien, and "that John Hurt moment" is surely a singularity of cinematic history - but since then I've seen the same plot device in the Species series, The Faculty, Spiders and any number of recent movies - it's hinted at in Cloverfield too when a victim has to be killed by the military before something worse happens. Alien has at it's heart a really good, original sci-fi idea - an alien species that has evolved to prey parasitically on any lifeform it comes across from planet to planet; but since then it seems any cinematic hostile lifeform, alien or otherwise, has to be parasitic.

Out of curiosity I checked out Asylum's website here and am pleased to report that there is absolutely no attempt to take their work seriously (this would have been unforgiveable) and that the use of titles and themes from mainstream studios is utterly shameless - coming soon "The Day The Earth Stopped." Journey to Middle Earth was directed by Davey Jones and Scott Wheller, previously sfx specialists, and their interview with B-Movie News here is very amusing and sheds more light on the Asylum.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Question and plea

The Day The Earth Stood Still
Planet of the Apes
The Stepford Wives
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
War of the Worlds

Why is it that only the best original sci-fi films get re-made?

What's the point? Even when the new version does have something new to offer, there's almost invariably some degree of disappointment when comparing to the original. I think there's a paradox here rooted in the Hollywood funding model - it's precisely because these original films had that magic element that keeps them alive in the collective mind and allows them to survive their wormhole transit to the present day pitch meeting.
Exceptions? OK, for my money the re-make of Solaris might be a better piece of cinema. It's shorter and better paced while just as eerie, as a result I've actually watched to the end unlike the original.

Meanwhile, there are films out there too corny or too mediocre ever to inspire Tom Cruise or Keanu Reeves - yet these are surely more deserving of a re-make than their recent projects. Surely there's room in the cinema industry for a re-make of Teenagers from Outer Space, for example? This b/w film, in which Pod-People teenagers give away their alien origins by being too polite and smartly dressed, is surely due for a re-make - it would be a great way of sending up those Daily Mail-style hoodiephobia attitudes... sadly while there are now at least four versions of Bodysnatchers (here, here, here and here) I doubt there's a re-imagining on the books for this B-classic.

Friday, 23 January 2009

A best and worst pairing?

Here's a pair of films that demonstrate the sfg dilemma:

Jurassic Park is underrated, I say - despite it's huge popularity and success. The special effects used to create credible dinosaurs were always the point of this film and many scenes are breathtakingly beautiful. However in the background, quietly doing their own thing are some highly original ideas, a plot, a script, and some decent acting talent.

Jurassic Park 2 is overrated - it's a perfect test film for identifying CFG sufferers like myself. I came out of this cinema suffused with enthusiasm and exhilaration. For a few seconds, until I saw the faces of my fellow cinema-goers, I actually believed that I had seen a good film.
Here's a section of the script recalled from memory with perfect accuracy.

Cast are chased by some dinosaurs.
They run away from the dinosaurs.
They run away from some more dinosaurs.
... anyway, you get the idea.

It's astonishing that, looking back on this film I honestly cannot find a single explanation for enjoying it. There's nothing new or exciting or beautiful about the effects (see Jurassic Park above). There are decent actors here. The above script extract shows exactly how much their talent is stretched, as well as telling you everything you need to know about the intelligence of the plot. Why am I doomed to crave this kind of entertainment?


The AIs at Google Analytics have brought to my attention that several readers have found their way here while searching for details of Interzone magazine. As a fellow IZ reader you are of course very welcome here! but I've also added a link to the Interzone website.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Ta-ta-ta-tum ta-ta-ta-tum

For reasons I'll keep to myself for the time being, if that's OK, despite considering myself to be a reasonably ardent follower of Doctor Who I hadn't managed to see the Series Three finale (Utopia, The Sound of Drums, The Last Time Lord) until very recently - I only saw the third of these episodes only a couple of nights ago.

My thoughts: John Simm makes a superb Master, re-imagined younger, much more dynamic and madder than ever, but still just about consistent with the Master of the old series. There are other great ideas and moments throughout the story - the identity of the "ultimate monsters" which is beautifully set up in the first of the three episodes, the elaborate double-bluffs around the legend of Martha Jones and her plan - and the sound of drums itself. Is it evidence of a Time Lord heart disease, the sound of the Vortex, or is the Master just listening to the title music? I also feel I've waited a long time for those flashbacks to Gallifrey and the Citadel, and for that throwaway explanation of the mysterious Face of Boe. Martha's departure at the end is very well handled - throughout the new series the relationship between the Doctor and his various companions has been explored intelligently (this was a blind spot for the old series).

However the script is uneven and disappointing in places. The religious themes in the conclusion were overcooked - perhaps an attempt to recreate the Bad Wolf moment but this time there wasn't any of the sheer alien-ness that made the first series' climax so powerful.

Monday, 19 January 2009

What is human? What is real?

Philip K Dick - different people seem to respond to different aspects of his writing, the everyman heroes get good press generally. For me the appeal of Dick's writing was his obsession with two huge philosophical questions - what is human? and what is real?

This isn't a review of Philip K Dick's stories however. Andrew Niccol is a scriptwriter and director whose films also explore these questions, often very effectively. Four examples:

The Truman Show (2001, script AN, directed Peter Weir) The central character is unknowingly living on a huge sound set surrounded by actors, and is the central character in a life-long TV show. This scenario crops up several times in PKD's stories. Superb direction creates proper paranoia where traffic jams and mistuned radios become highly sinister; while Jim Carrey demonstrates comic timing without his trademark exaggeration and clowning, leading to a spot-on performance and a genuinely likeable character.

Gattaca (1997, written and directed by AN) this time the focus is on human identity in terms of genetics. This is hard sci-fi with only the tiniest extrapolations from the present to create a near-future society where your life is determined by quick and easy DNA testing. The central plot concerns the natural-born and genetically imperfect hero's attempt to join the space programme by borrowing DNA samples of a genetically perfect but injured athlete; however the subplots
explore the impact of DNA testing in everything from finding a partner to it's most familiar modern day use in CSI-style policing. Characterization is slightly cold in places; script is intelligent and clear, and visual imagery is often stylish and stunning (the two central characters live at the top and bottom of a house, connected by a helical spiral staircase).

S1m0ne - (2002, written and directed by AN) Pacino plays the director who fires his star actress and replaces her with a computer simulation. There are early hints that the simulation may itself be intelligent and have it's own agenda (boring) but in fact the film takes off in a much more imaginative direction - the director has to go to ever increasing lengths to convince the public (and fellow actors) of the reality of his vactress; meanwhile it becomes clear that Sim0ne is actually part of the director's personality.

Lord of War (2005, written and directed by AN) - the perpetrators of war crimes and other atrocities are often written off as inhuman monsters. I won't cite the obvious example as I am a firm adherent to Godwin's Law. In general this is a coward's way out of addressing the horrific truth that human beings are capable of this level of evil, or of thinking about why they might act the way they do. This film deserves full credit for taking this on - Cage's amoral international arms dealer character is given just enough emotional response to the consequences of his dealings that we can't see him as a robot, and are forced to struggle with the uncomfortable question of his motivation.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Web 3.0

Two short stories in Interzone #220 both look at the future of Web 2.0. and the 'net in general.

A lot of what happens on Web 2.0 can be described either as trying to get attention or trying to promote something. In "Monetized" by Jason Stoddard, these two processes are multiplied so that every interaction between two people is now an opportunity to promote something - everyone has an agenda, we're all scrambling after referral fees and there's no longer any such thing as innocent conversation - and this constant promotion is the basis of the new economy. Stoddard's novella is serious (although often humorous) and set in a well fleshed-out and very believable future. Meanwhile "Spy vs Spy" by Neal Williamson explores, albeit in a much lighter way, the more paranoid aspects of social networking - by laying out so much of your life in the open, you might be making enemies as well as friends, and of course the net makes it very easy to indulge in this kind of paranoia. In both stories, with the exception of Stoddard's hero, the majority of people seem to be buying into these trends rather than challenging them and I think this rings true - if so then far from empowering the user, Web 2.0 could be directing his or her movements.

Interzone 220 opens with two very strong and very different stories - the Jason Stoddard, and (deep breath) "Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest: Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast" by Eugie Foster. This surreal story of people living in a beehive society and changing their identity and personality each day with the masks they wear, contrasts with the cynical realism of Monetized completely, and while it starts like an adult, medieval re-imagining of Mr. Benn, it opens out into something dark, powerful and moving. It's hard to describe this as original when this kind of plot, about choosing to become aware that the world is a dystopia rather than the utopia you've been led to believe, is so widely used elsewhere, but there are other forms of originality here, including an ending that successfully avoids cliche and reminds the reader that freedom and self-discovery can lead to a great deal of pain.
This month Adam Tredowski's cover, left, and Daniel Bristow-Bailey's retro sci-fi drawing for Memory Dust are both excellent. In general though I was disappointed by the relative lack of striking illustrations elsewhere in 220, perhaps because I've been spoiled by previous issues - Interzone's often about the illustration as much as the stories.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Odds and endings

Two more oddball films I've seen and enjoyed, again with only the most tenuous connection to sci-fi...

Being John Malkovich (1999) by Spike Jonze is hard to describe - the story of desperate puppeteer John Cusack who discovers a hole in an office-wall leading into John Malkovich's head is just the start of a story that gets more surreal each scene - and just when you think this film could quite happily exist just as a playground for bizarre unconnected ideas, the ending unexpectedly wraps the story up into a neat gothic horror that actually makes sense of most (not quite all) of the plot.

Compare to Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate, released the same year, in which Johnny Depp's character, a rare books dealer on the trail of a demonic spellbook of some kind is constantly uncovering clues that seem to hint at an ultimate secret - while the ending is at least consistent with the quest, there's a real sense that the film just stops without pulling the strands together, or explaining the picture that is presumable clear to the character. This is the opposite: a fantasy film that does need an ending but lacks one.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

The Rocket Revisited

Preview frame from a work in progress. I'm playing with some steampunk ideas here:

Monday, 12 January 2009

It makes all the difference in the world...

Last year was a good year for real-world steampunk generally as tall ships resumed delivery of wine and British engineers and enthusiasts built a new steam locomotive from scratch. I got my fill of steampunk last weekend by wandering through the Science Museum: Stevenson's original Rocket, the live demonstrations of Watt's beam engines and other static steam engines, the collection of steam ship engine parts and best of all the various Charles Babbage machines including one of the working Difference Engine reconstructions. The Difference Engine is the mechanical supercomputer of the steampunk world, playing a central role in the William Gibson / Bruce Sterling novel "The Difference Engine" (1990) but, as far as anyone knows Babbage never completed a full scale version of either the Difference Engine or its successor the Analytic Engine - a mechanical computer that may have proved the equal of the punched card systems that appeared much later. Over the past few years reconstructions of the DE have been built in UK and US museums, while impressivly Tim Robinson and Andrew Carol built working engines out of Meccano and Lego respectively.

While mentioning the Science Museum I should also point out they are currently running an excellent Dan Dare exhibition, contrasting the stories and features from the comic with real-life inventions and design trends from the 50s. I have fond (if somewhat vague) memories of the Eagle and would recommend the exhibition.

Enough clacking for tonight...

Saturday, 10 January 2009

I have a dream

Some thoughts on The Dreaming Void by Peter F. Hamilton. I thought I'd spend a good few weeks on this lengthy book but it's only January 10th and amazingly I've run out of pages. TDV is the first in a new trilogy, set a few thousand years after the Commonwealth Saga.

This book gradually becomes more addictive. It's not original in terms of concepts or settings - human political factions with different attitudes to body or mind upgrades are a common theme in modern-day space opera, and this and the central mystery, the Void reminded me of Reynolds' writing; there are also Culture-like elements. There are plenty of ancient wise or warlike alien races, and a lot of zipping around through hyperspace or wormholes. The space-opera strand is countered by the experiences of a human colony within the Void on a world where people have varying degrees of telekinetic powers, experienced in the galaxy outside through the dreams of the faithful. This is simplistic fantasy and occasionally veers into Discworld-like territory - the hero Edeard has a little of Sam Vimes about him, but I found this strand the most captivating part of the book.

Back in the outside world most of the players (and there are a lot) are searching for something or someone and there's a lot of political machination and plotting. A religious movement founded on the Void dreams plans a massive pilgrimage into the Void but other factions believe this will trigger galactic destruction. There are a few brief bouts of action courtesy of Aaron, the maximally upgraded hitman-without-a-memory, and some bad sci-fi sex courtesy of Araminta the seemingly innocent property developer and her "multiple" partner Mr. Bovey. Different characters seem designed to bring action, comedy, sympathy or other experiences into the novel.

I enjoyed this book and thought it was well-written and structured - particularly given it's length it could easily have lost it's way but didn't. Despite the standardized settings there's a lot of originality in the actual characters and situations. Mostly the characters are convincing as motivated individuals, just occasionally they all start to speak with the same voice. I intend to go back and try the Commonwealth series in the near future and may well continue with this trilogy later.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Happy endings

Is Magnolia (1999) sci-fi? Probably not, it's more of an oddball film. It's long by Western standards, a good three hours or so, mostly taken up with the small-scale dilemmas of a collection of characters. A rare sighting of Tom Cruise in seriously good acting mode is found here. There's another in Interview with the Vampire but I haven't come across any more yet... even rarer, the film does not revolve entirely around him.

This is not the point. This is a difficult film to watch due to it's length and pace but it is my mission in life to get as many people as possible to see it through to the end. Find a way. Let yourself connect with one of the characters. Be sentimental. Or just sit back and enjoy the unearthly beauty of the Aimee Mann soundtrack. Just as the characters are beginning to make progress with their dilemmas, and in some cases to reach out to one another, the film delivers an ending sequence that literally left me slack-jawed and on the edge of my seat for the last twenty minutes. You won't guess it unless someone else has told you. It's the best ending I've seen to any film, delivering a powerful message about the futility of human endeavour in the face of the power of nature or chance.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Just for fun...

here's my version of the Under Construction Trailer, with apologies. You may not get this unless you grew up in the UK...

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Joined-Up Government

Quantum of Solace: The older Bond films scraped across the edge of the sci-fi zone due to their love of improbable gadgetry and occasional low-Earth-orbit derring do. However gadgetry and other plot elements have been toned down in the re-imagining. In Casino Royale this worked well - the car with the built in automated defibrillator was pretty cool. However the main innovation in Quantum is also it's least plausible feature - it's hard to accept that a UK government body could ever commission a fully functional multipurpose cross-agency database, or indeed any computer system. The following scenario is a little more likely:

Scene: MI6 headquarters. There’s an impressive glass-projection computer screen, but it’s showing a DOS error message and the display is rotated 90 degrees. M is on the phone.

Bond: (via mobile): “Can you get me anything on Dominic Green?”

M: “Hang on a second, 007 - just checking the social services database now… Sorry, it’s not accepting my password again. Ah. There are 7,000 Dominic Greens - anything more specific?”

Bond: “He’s plotting to overthrow several governments.”

M: “Unemployed then. Right - think this must be him - sending picture now.”

Bond: “…Sorry, can’t view it on this phone you’ve issued me with - can you send it as a jpeg?”

M: “No.”

Bond: “Oh well. Anything else on the social services database?”

M: “Sorry 007, that part of the database was in a CD-Rom we sent over to the Treasury by courier.”

Bond: “The one that turned up on ebay two weeks later?”

M: (sighs) “Who’d have thought dr_no_mwahaha1 would have bid so high?”

Bond: “How about the NHS record system?”

M: “System’s still down. The contractor’s gone bust again and we can’t get through to the helpdesk.”

Bond: “Criminal Record Bureau?”

M: “Fill in the form and send it in - they’ll get back to you in about three months.”
Female Virgin Mobile voice: “You have 30 seconds and 15 texts remaining.”

Bond: “I need answers. Now.”

M: “OK - I’ve got his online tax returns but that’s about all. Shall I put it on an unencrypted flash drive and leave it on the Circle Line for you to pick up as usual?”

Bond: (hangs up)

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Perdido Street Station (spoilers)

I don't confuse sci-fi with fantasy. I do read fantasy as well (and other genres too) however can easily get bored with standardized tales of wizards and elves. I wonder if Tolkien in the long run has done more damage than good to the genre - on the one hand there's so much to enjoy in his own books; on the other hand there are all the other books "inspired" by the Tolkiverse.

To my mind fantasy should be about fantasy: you fantasise. A fantasy writer should be free to allow anything into his or her novel from his or her mind. While a certain amount of internal consistency might still be helpful, it's not about keeping things plausible or nearly plausible, or sticking to the rules (like, say, hard sci-fi).

This is why I'm bringing up Perdido Street Station - it's brimful of highly original beings and events. The setting combines magic and steampunk; the world includes all manner of creatures and hybrids - to give you some flavour, the heroes, a journalist (with a beetle instead of a head), a freelance scientist and a criminal fixer are trying to defeat a giant dream-stealing moth, that should give you a start. The setting - the city of New Crobuzon - combines the absolute worst excesses of every major city on Earth. Mieville has a wonderful prose style that describes settings in three-dimensional, 32-bit colour and HD resolution; and he's never happier than when finding new and fresh ways to describe just how mucky the current setting is. And there's not an orc to be seen anywhere.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

New Beginnings

Happy New Year!

Just started two sci-fi epics. The first is Peter F. Hamilton's novel-brick "The Dreaming Void." I am new to PFH, having been somewhat intimidated by the proportions of the books in the past. So far so good. The novel introduces an Antarctica-like multi-species scientific community, set up to study the anomaly at the centre of the Galaxy which, it turns out is not a natural black hole but an artificial barrier thought to hide an ancient alien race - not unlike the Shrouders of Revelation Space. The story encapsulates a history-rich, Machiavellian human society finding its place within a larger and older galactic community, a religion based around dreams thought to emanate from within the anomaly, and within the dreams a fantasy sub-plot set in a medieval society where villagers have telekinetic abilities.

The second epic is Nick Delios' "Conspiracies," a member of the more or less failed interactive movie genre, translated from the original Greek and picked up in a computer games store at a fairly decisive discount. First plays suggest production values that could have been higher, with corny dialogue and melodramatics plus dodgy bluescreen (not that I'm in any position to talk.) The game plays out in two modes so far - full motion video (real actors, virtual settings) with branching dialogue, and point-and-click puzzles in 3D virtual environments.

I'll post an update on both epics when I've finished them or at least progressed further.