Saturday, 28 February 2009

This is a novel, and the things that happen in it aren't true.

Jennifer Government, by Max Barry, is a near-future sci-fi novel with several speculative ideas. However it's also a political satire and would sit happily on a bookshelf between Michael Moore's non-fiction investigative novels and Carl Hiaason's Florida-set satirical thrillers, a few rows up from some of Ben Elton's novels. Barry is Australian and sets his novel in an Australia that seems to have become "a United States Country" along with many other previously independent nations. Individuals' lives are completely ruled by the powerful corporations who employ them - to the extent that they wear barcodes and take corporate surnames, hence characters such as Hack Nike, John Nike, John Nike and the eponymous Ms. Government. Government agencies have been emasculated but struggle with their limited power to maintain their standards. Who in turn rules the all-powerful corporations? Read on and discover which two familiar organizations hold all the power and are fighting for their own supremacy - it's an original but actually very plausible conspiracy scenario.

Jennifer Government herself makes a great action heroine and role model for the working mother. The book hits all its satirical targets and makes a strong case against allowing the capitalist world to self-regulate or transcend governmental control. Barry adds power to his observations by misappropriating real corporations, trademarks and all, and this novel
contains the second best front-page disclaimer I've ever read (the best can be found not in science fiction but in Toby Young's novel How To Lose Friends And Alienate People).

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Seafaring fantasy #2: The Black Ship

The Inland Sea of Crosspointe, the setting for Diana Pharaoh Francis' novel The Black Ship, is smaller, and more thoroughly mapped out, than the vast oceans of Bas-Lag, but no less deadly. Outside the Pale, a magical harbour, there are animal, meterological and metaphysical hazards, not to mention the shore-hugging ships of hostile nations. Freak currents and tides throw vicious depth-dwelling creatures to the surface, and the sea contains sylveth, a mercurial substance that turns all it touches into undead spawn. Sailing requires more than good seamanship and depends on the relationship between Captain and Pilot, the latter extending his or her extra-sensory perception with the aid of a magic compass.

The nature of luck is a theme running throughout the book, which opens with a shot across the bows of classic tragedy. In the face of all the danger it is unsurprising that, as on Earth, Crosspointe's sailors have grown superstitious. The protagonist, cat-loving whistler Pilot Sylbrac is a rarity of Crosspointe - a character who tempts fate openly. Sylbrac is however not much of a people person, and the Ketirvan, a sort of Pilot's AGM leaves him isolated and cast out without a ship assignation - worse, he is pressganged aboard an unregistered vessel, the Black Ship of the title in more than one sense. It turns out that bringing a cat aboard is nothing compared to the juxtaposition of other supposedly unlucky portents for the voyage. However the story takes apart the very meaning of luck - after all, is it unlucky or lucky to have survived three consecutive shipwrecks?

Embracing his fate, so to speak, Sylbrac takes on a new identity - Thorn - and starts afresh to offend his shipmates by challenging their superstitions even while he seeks to disprove their negative views of him. Pilots in general are a proud, aloof and inhumane lot but Thorn has an unfair advantage in that he was a common sailor before becoming Pilot. Thorn, and for that matter Captain Plusby and the crew, develop tangibly and satisfactorily as the novel progresses. The relationship between cat Fitch and the crew is a barometer for the crew's progress as they grow first to accept and trust Thorn then to overcome their fears. There's a lot about identity too - Thorn has lived many lives and of course cannot really leave his past identities behind him; while many other characters are formed, reshaped or motivated by their losses or traumas.

All this takes place in a setting that combines flights of fantasy with very well-researched Age of Sail detail - the vocabulary, mechanics and superstitions of sailing have a strong sense of authenticity. The book opens slowly - the voyage doesn't really get underway for a good ten chapters, and unlike The Scar, The Black Ship doesn't throw up new creatures or fantasies with every page-turn, but there's still a great deal of exciting action, intelligent human drama and plenty of twists and revelations.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Seafaring fantasy #1: The Scar

For some reason fantasy and high seas adventure seem to go well together. In The Scar, China Mieville's sequel to Perdido Street Station, linguist Bellis Coldwine goes on the run from the New Crobuzon militia. Typically for Mieville, the scale of events increases exponentially from chapter to chapter. Bellis takes passage on a ship, the Terpsichoria, that turns out to be on a secret, spying mission, but this is only the beginning - just as the captain orders it back to New Crobuzon, to Bellis' disappointment, the ship is overrun by pirates and Bellis and her fellow passengers are taken to the floating pirate city of Armada. They are given their freedom - including the Remade convicts locked in the ship's hull for whom this is a welcome change from the New Crobuzon apartheid - but may not leave.

Like New Crobuzon, although necessarily smaller, Armada is a joy to explore, with different districts built from ship hulls, each with their own rulers, factions and eccentricities. The uneasy truce is held by current rulers The Lovers, whose history is itself a fascinating subplot. Being populated by pirates it's a brutal society and Bellis has to find herself a niche, adapt and survive. Armada itself is changing. Historically it has drifted from secret location to secret location, surviving (naturally) by piracy - but now there's a power struggle going on, and new factions have ambitious plans to summon a powerful force from the depths of the ocean, which itself will be just the start of an even more audacious plan.
As with the first Bas-Lag novel, The Scar overflows with colourful descriptive prose and equally colourful characterization. The restrained but resourceful Bellis carries the story although many of the other characters, human, Remade or otherwise, are also memorable.

Saturday, 21 February 2009


Thinking of Stephen Baxter, while many people were touched by the real-life Columbia tragedy, I had a shiver thinking of the chapter in Titan where Columbia is described breaking up on re-entry, not least as in the novel this is just the first in a series of tragedies and disasters. Titan was not of course literally prescient but Baxter had an enthusiast's extensive knowledge of the space programmes (he also described, very accurately, the first few steps of the Chinese manned space programme long before they took place) and his description sadly turned out to be a completely plausible scenario.

Friday, 20 February 2009

The Martian Romance

I wangled a brief but highly enjoyable attachment to a department at Kennedy Space Centre into my professional training. I learned a lot there, not least the delightful discovery that a lot of NASA employees really are Trekkies and that science fiction really does seem to inspire people to go into this sort of work. This was pre-Constellation but there was a lot of coridoor speculation at the time about the design of a Mars mission; the general consensus was to wait and see how this was handled in the upcoming film Mission to Mars, and then to plan the actual mission proposal around it.

Mission to Mars was released in the US while I was there. The journey to Mars is one of the highlights of the film - beautifully and credibly filmed, with a very believable spaceship design including zero-G and centrifugal gravity sections. Zero-G simulation seems about right and lack of gravity is key to some of the action scenes. I am sure that, if Constellation does eventually get a Mars shot we will see a spaceship something like this one. M2M doesn't continue in the same vein but skips from genre to genre as the film develops - from arrival in Mars orbit there's a switch to action/survival thriller (the process of entering the atmosphere and landing is completely bypassed, no doubt lying on a cutting-room floor somewhere); later there's an alien mystery to uncover. As in many films, books and games, it seems aliens love to test our intelligence by setting logic puzzles and killing us if we fail to solve them. See Rama, Diamond Dogs, etc. for other examples of this. I have another theory: these are actually not intentional puzzles at all but abandoned baby toys from the Early Alien Learning Centre, no doubt sold in a box marked "suitable for advanced children only - designed to improve your child's hand eye coordination logical reasoning and telekinetic skills."

Films often arrive in pairs - a parallel film Red Planet was also released that season. While much is incredible (I mean rather than credible) there's one brilliant sequence inspired by the Pathfinder / Sojourner landing, where a human crew is landed on Mars using bouncing airbags.

Finally while on the subject of Mars I can't avoid mentioning Voyage by Stephen Baxter. Starting from a Jonbar point - Kennedy is incapacitated but survives the assassination attempt, presumably the bullet is a few millimetres further to the left or something; this is the alternate history in which NASA pursues the original Mars plan (an extension of Apollo) instead of building the Space Shuttle. This is a painfully believable vision of what might have been, and also includes very sensitive treatment of topics such as the involvement of Nazi scientists in NASA's history. As well as the book there is a radio play available on BBC CD which really captures the drama - one episode, the orbital test-flight of a nuclear rocket, is delivered in near real-time, with almost no voice-over, just with sound-effects and comm chatter dialogue.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Memetics rules!

I enjoyed following this meme & reading the range of reviews so am happy to pass on
The Book Review Meme @ Grasping for the Wind
(via SciFiGuy)
1. Grasping for the Wind - INFOQUAKE by David Louis Edelman
2. Age 30+ ... A Lifetime of Books - A COMPANION TO WOLVES by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
3. Dragons, Heroes and Wizards - ASSASSIN'S APPRENTICE by Robin Hobb
4. Walker of Worlds - THE TEMPORAL VOID by Peter F Hamilton
5. Neth Space - TOLL THE HOUNDS by Steven Erikson
6. Dark in the Dark - GHOST STORIES OF AN ANTIQUARY by M.R. James
7. A Dribble of Ink - THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
8. Fantasy Book News & Reviews - EMPRESS by Karen Miller
9. Fantasy Debut - ACACIA by David Anthony Durham Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Overall Review Afterthought
10. All Booked Up - THE BLUE SWORD by Robin McKinley
11. Fantasy Cafe - THE BOOK OF JOBY by Mark J. Ferrari
12. AzureScape - ANATHEM by Neal Stephenson
13. The Book Smugglers - THE INFERIOR by Peadar O'Guilin
14. Besotted Bookworm - PARANORMAL FICTION FEAST by Christine Feehan, Julie Kramer, and Jayne Castle
15. Renee's Book Addiction - WANDERLUST by Ann Aguirre
16. - THE BLACK SHIP by Diana Pharaoh Francis
17. Literary Escapism - FOR A FEW DEMONS MORE by Kim Harrison (with spoilers)
18. Speculative Horizons - THE TERROR by Dan Simmons
19. Stella Matutina - NEW AMSTERDAM by Elizabeth Bear
20. Variety SF - MISSION OF GRAVITY by Hal Clement
21. WISB/F&SF Lovin' Blog - SEABORN by Chris Howard
22. Highlander's Book reviews - A MADNESS OF ANGELS by Kate Griffin
23. The Old Bat's Belfry - THE CROWN CONSPIRACY by Michael J. Sullivan
24. Dark Wolf's Fantasy Reviews - THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
25. The Sci-Fi Gene - PERDIDO STREET STATION by China Mieville
26. Against the Nothing - MAY BIRD AND THE EVER AFTER by Jodi Lynn Anderson
27. Flight into Fantasy - AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman
28. Subliminal Intervention - UNWIND by Neal Shusterman
29. Items of Interest - BITTEN TO DEATH by Jennifer Rardin
30. Necromancy Never Pays-- FICTION AND LIES by Daniel Waters
Updated 3.3.09.

60163-M: Work in progress

I have something cool in mind for this model...

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Review: Jumper

We're approaching the end of the Oscar season and entering the serious sci-fi film season (as opposed to the blockbuster season). I'm particularly looking forward to Push and Franklyn both of which are nearing their UK releases.

The Push trailer reminded me a little of Jumper, a film I enjoyed last year. It looks like both are part of the trend of re-inventing the idea of superhumans, also seen in Heroes, the bullet-benders of Wanted and M.Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable - the emphasis is taken away from jumpsuits, alter-egos and day-to-day crime-fighting, in place of casual clothes and a more inventive look at superpowers. There's still a central theme of battles between good and evil, but Jumper has less in common with Superman and more in common with John Twelve Hawks' The Traveller, or Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code as ancient secret societies try to wipe each other from history. Here the genetic defect in question grants the power of more or less unlimited teleportation, which the hero, played by Hayden Christiansen, has absolutely no intention of using for the greater good - instead, believing himself to be unique, he travels the world robbing banks, collecting souvenirs and generally leading a Jumper playboy lifestyle. He is only drawn into battle when his actions draw the attention of the Paladins, Samuel L. Jackson's Jumper-hating sect who believe, and seem to need to keep reminding us, that "Only God should have this power."

Teleportation provides an excuse to set the action in and around world landmarks. Jumpers use their abilities inventively to gain advantage in a fight - the Paladins have to stop them with Jumper-jamming electric harpoons fired from their staffs. This could have been absolute rubbish - and sometimes it is - but more often than not the scenes are imaginative and make good use of the teleportation concept.

Christiansen and Jackson are perfectly good in their roles, as is Rachel Bilson who could have been given a bit more to do. The revelation is Jamie Bell as Griffin, a fellow Jumper, who gives his part authenticity and depth. Overall this is an average but highly enjoyable B-movie that - just occasionally - punches above its' weight and provides moments of originality.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Review: Primer

This indie film sets itself up as the opposite of Back to the Future and is an attempt to make an "intelligent" time travel film. The plot concerns garage physics experiments; the film is certainly original, complex and almost completely cliche-free; however in the attempt to give an intelligent and authentic feel the dialogue is far too dense, and delivered too fast often to the extent of incomprehensibility; the film is therefore not very accessible, although watching with subtitles on helps a bit. I'm still glad I saw it.
Thing is, I don't agree with the main premise here which is that there aren't other intelligent time travel films. Many films in the last few years have found unusual ways of exploring time travel and related issues, often with a focus on emotion and soft sci-fi approaches; examples if you're prepared to look back include the Jacket, Donnie Darko, Twelve Monkeys. And Back to the Future is a fantastic film, I won't have a word said against it. There was also the recent Simon Wells remake of the Time Machine - disappointing in some ways, but I thought it saved itself by a logical, and as far as I can remember original, resolution of the time travel paradox.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Review: Confederate States of America

An oddball film I came across and enjoyed, sadly lacking a mainstream release - this is an alternative history with a Jonbar point in the American War of Independence. The title hints at the alternative outcome. The main theme is slavery and racial inequality which does not end with the War; the film is eye-opening because so many elements of it are not actually fictional - the psychiatric diagnosis of "drapetomania" to describe runaway slaves and justify medical treatment of same; the portrayal of slaves and negroes in brand advertising, several of which exist in our reality too e.g. Uncle Ben...

The more imaginative elements of the plot, such as an alternative Clinton scandal, are also great fun, and the format of a British documentary about the history of the US, complete with fictional advert breaks, works well. The history of the slave trade is a British shame too and despite the US focus there's much to think about from a UK perspective.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Cats Rule

I'm currently reading The Black Ship by Diana Pharaoh Francis - thanks SQT. It's too early to review but having been introduced to the character of Fitch, Thorn's somewhat overprotective pet cat, I started to wonder if fantasy, or for that matter sci-fi, might be a cat people thing. Are cat lovers over-represented amongst sci-fi or fantasy writers?

Simone Simon starred in The Cat People (1942) a genuinely creepy and sexy black and white feline variation on the werewolf legend and an all time favourite. Ripley's cat Jones survives the first encounter with the Alien(1979) and shares Ripley's escape pod - Jones reappears at the beginning of Aliens(1986) and provides one of the film's first memorable moments. There's also a memorable cat moment in The Matrix(1999) where deja vu is given a new, sinister significance.

Cat-loving sci-fi writers include Robert Heinlein, whose novels and short stories feature a great many cats, not least the mysterious Pixel, the Cat Who Walks Through Walls. Many writers have also written about cat-like alien species - for example Nimitz and his fellow treecats in David Weber's Honor Harrington novels, the Kzin of Larry Niven's Known Space and C.J.Cherryh's hani.

There are Cat People on the BBC too, Cat, the humanoid evolutionary descendent of Lister's cat smuggled aboard Red Dwarf was a high water mark in sci-fi comedy, particularly in earlier episodes that genuinely played with Cat's feline characteristics. More recently cat-like aliens have featured in Doctor Who. The BBC believes in "balanced reporting" and both series have also featured dog characters - Cat's counterpart in the Parallel Universe turns out to be a (very scruffy) dog; while Doctor Who occasionally travels with robotic companion K9.
Cats in sci-fi seem to stand for a range of different ideas, playing on their reputations for having a wild streak, being independent or untameable; they're both self-centred and deeply honourable, sinister, funny and sexy and above all enigmatic.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Search for the sci-fi gene - update

The following quotes from the blogosphere and elsewhere suggest I am not alone in thinking that the ability to enjoy more or less anything sci-fi might be genetic. Follow the links for full articles and quotes:

Well, when I was 1 year old, the original Star Trek was new. I'm told that my father used to put me in my playpen and have me watch original Star Trek when it was new in 1966. It's for this reason that I'm convinced that I'm a Sci-Fi geek. Particularly of Star Trek and other TV Sci-Fi. Well, it appears my daughter is the same way. Check out this video. It's my daughter dancing in her playpen to the theme song for Doctor Who. The Sci-Fi gene has been passed on, it seems. :)

The Sci-Fi Gene Carries On, Joe Spiegel, May 2006

The Sci Fi Gene (or Help! That Dingo Got My Wall.E)
Mysteries like: ... why does science fiction leave some folks cold, while the rest of us, well, we others just can't get enough of sci fi. As to the latter question: I suppose that it's genetic perhaps ... And thus to those of who have the correct gene, Wall.E's character/ personhood is so DANG APPEALING!

The Sci Fi Gene (or Help! That Dingo Got My Wall.E), True Margrit, July 2008

"Battlestar Galactica's" return on Jan. 16 is a cause for rejoicing, and not just because it provides a couple of million geeks a more compelling excuse than usual to stay home Friday nights. (As someone who carries the sci-fi gene, these are my peeps, so it's OK for me to dog them a little.)

Battlestar and Lost: The Power of Setting an End Date, Brian Lowry, Jan 2009

He [Phil DeGueres, Twilight Zone producer] had that sci-fi gene, not only in his willingness to explore ideas and imagine a different world—he also liked to shake things up. To my knowledge, he was the first writer-producer to use computers in a major way, not just in formatting and writing scripts, but for preproduction scheduling, budgeting and other tiresome administrative tasks.

A Death In The Family, Michael Cassutt

I missed V the first time around, but I watched on Joost before they had their big (and awful) overhaul to a Flash-based site. I would make the excuse that I was too young for it (I was about 7 or 8), but somehow I managed to see things like Poltergeist in that same time period. Maybe my sci fi gene hadn't kicked in yet?

V Original Series Creator Not Happy about Re-boot, Lee (comment on Angry Puppy), Oct 2008

For those of you who lack the sci-fi gene. I’m sure you all have friends who are nerds, geeks, spaced-out, fantasy, and sci-fi nuts. i09 (strung out on science fiction), has put together a little holiday gift guide for the 10 major species of science fiction fans.

i09 Sci-fi Gift Guide, blog I am your father, Dec 2008

Would you say The Chosen One narrative express itself better or more frequently in Science Fiction and Fantasy than in other genres?

I don’t know about that. Perhaps not. The little girl in The Little Princess, is a Chosen One, and there’s no hint of Sci Fi in that. I think it’s not something that is specific to Sci Fi, just something that *when it is present*, helps readers feel pulled into the story even if they don’t possess the Sci Fi gene.

Interview with Firefly scriptwriter Jane Espenson, N.E.Lilly, spacewesterns, 2007

So, it was interfacing with the real world that got you interested in all this stuff, not -- I was going to ask you, did you read a lot of science fiction?

No. We have a theory that there's a science fiction gene, that you either have it or you don't, and for some reason I didn't get that gene.

Interview with Ken Goldberg, Conversations with History, UC Berkeley, Aug 2005

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Machine Time

something 'bout this crazy world you didn't know before
everyone's a third rate metaphor

The Guardian YouTube challenge shortlist is out. It's an excellent shortlist with several gems and lots of sci-fi influence. The competition was to make a 5 minute film inspired by a short story in the paper.

The final shortlist:

THE BIG IDEA - delightfully silly
DREAMDOG - arty but a bit slow
DRIVE - scenes from the short story set to a cool song
EASY CHAIR - eerie furniture-based ghost story
FAMILY CHRISTMAS - weirder than Easy Chair. Warning: includes sofa giving birth
LAURA FINAL MOVIE - well-made drama about footballs
MACHINE TIME - surreal video montage
MEGA SAVINGS - another piece of silliness
MOTHER - dark and atmospheric drama about televisions
OLD SCHOOL PEOPLE - VIDEO DIARY - film about making a film - how meta
SICK MEANING WICKED - narrative with symbolic video montage, unusual and interesting
SOFA SO GOOD - a mini Twilight Zone episode with references to The Fly.

Sadly our entry Human Touch didn't make the cut.

I enjoyed the music of Drive and the sci-fi touches of Mother and Sofa So Good (I want a big jar of Science!) However my favourite was Machine Time, a clever juxtaposition of H.G.Wells description of accelerating forwards through time with a history of the Internet complete with fake YouTube clips.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Eight-legged films

Journey to the Centre of the Earth (Asylum version) started me thinking about this: For no reason at all, a quick round up of some of my favourite creature flicks over the years:

Spiders (2000): This is what happens when special effects technicians get to direct films. What you get is conspiracy theorists, genetic experimentation, secretive government agencies, a couple claiming to be alien immigrants, creepy crawlies, and the Space Shuttle - all in the first ten minutes. The heroine is a feisty college rag journalist who would rather interview the said immigrants than cover any serious science stories; while Mother-in-Law and her offspring are worthy additions to the Hall of Fame of cinematic monsters. As far as I can tell the whole spectrum of special effects are employed here, from costume and puppetry through stop-motion to CGI, as each generation of spiders, larger than the last, presents new cinematic challenges.

There is a sequel - Spiders 2 (2001) - linked to the first film only in that it is another film featuring large numbers of giant spiders, this time running amok on a container ship.

Other notable arachnid-inspired films: Arachnid (2001): jungle survival film commits the cardinal sin of taking itself too seriously, particularly given the silly ending; yet at its best contains echoes of Predator.

Arachnaphobia (1990): unusually focus is on small, or at least normal-range spiders. As you might expect from a Spielberg production this is very effective visual cinema, and I remember this film as being extremely creepy.

Eight-Legged Freaks (2002): does exactly what it says on the tin (as I may have read in a review at the time). Hilarious from the outset, with a Mars Attacks attitude to body count and superb cgi - I read somewhere that first they tried to scale up realistic spiders but these were too cute and not scary enough. Everything's there - radiation, the small boy who sees everything but whom no-one believes, etc. Curiously the Achilles heel of the spiders (every B-movie monster needs an idiosyncratic weakness - see Evolution for more details) turns out to be that they are vulnerable to gunfire.

Tarantula (1955): the original giant spider, still a highly enjoyable film.

In searching for the illustration I discovered I haven't covered even half of this topic - will need to further research the titles "Earth Vs The Spider" and "Kingdom of the Spiders" amongst others...