Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Primevalgate: Series 3 opener

An ancient Egyptian artefact with misunderstood hieroglyphics, containing the key to travel through the space-time anomalies... did the new Primeval episode on Saturday remind you of anything too?

I was wondering where Primeval would go after the straightforward time-travel stories from series 1 and the alternate universe or changed timeline of series 2. Where it's going, it seems, is Stargate. It turns out the ancient Egyptians knew how to manipulate or at least anchor the anomalies, and the creatures travelling through them were worshipped as gods. A new team member arrives - Laila Rouass' archaeologist/mythologist Sarah Page, and this suggests future episodes will explore the possibility that time-travelling prehistoric creatures underlie other myths and legends. Hopefully they haven't blown the series budget on episode one where the prehistoric menace-of-the-week soundly trashes the Royal Festival Hall.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Review: Coalescent

Good science-fiction is mind-blowing. This book has had a huge effect on my thinking and how I see the world.

In the book there are two interwoven narratives, one concerning a Roman family struggling to survive, the other concerning a modern day hero trying to solve the mystery of his family. Unsurprisingly they are connected, and initially this feels like a Dan Brown historical mystery thriller (or thrilling mysterious history?). However the mystery Baxter is building towards has nothing to do with the origins of Christianity, even though his mysterious organization passes itself off as a Roman Catholic - this is a more sinister, more biological and more sci-fi concept.

What is it that's so good about this book? The mystery is revealed gradually, this is handled well without seeming to hold back facts unfairly (I am often irritated when I read that the protagonist of a story has just learned a key fact but I am not informed until two chapters later); The case for plausibility - basically that similar phenomena do exist in several places in the animal kingdom - is worked in neatly; the complex concept at the heart of the novel is described clearly; and the ending turns the story on it's head - instead of describing a freak occurrence as I thought, are the principles of this book central to understanding all human activity?

It hardly seems fair to identify any faults at all with such a powerful book but it's difficult to imagine all the evolutionary changes described in humans occurring over "just" two thousand years. The quality of the writing helps to minimise this; also some suggestions (that the process could actually have evolved earlier in human history, and remained within the human genome as a vestigial capacity or a dormant process re-activated by stress) are hinted at later in the series.

The ending, together with extracts from the sequel printed at the end of the book, give the impression that this theme will be developed further in the sequels - particularly Baxter's future history of child warfare seems initially to be built on the same principles; sadly, while the Coalescence does rear it's head again this concept is underdeveloped.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Is it two ponies? Is it your mother's face? No... it's Rorschach!

The one thing Watchmen is not is a Superman movie. Thankfully. There have been no shortage of superhero or super-team films in recent years and some have even been quite enjoyable or inventive, but this is a different kettle of fish.

I am reviewing Watchmen as a film having (deliberately) not yet read the graphic novel. This is the opposite of most of the superhero mythos. So there's no battle of extremes - this is the first film I've seen for a while that sees good and evil as two ends of a spectrum and places each character, believably and consistently, in a different place along it, and there's a real confusion of the nature of heroes and villains. A few superhero movie traits survive the carnage - there are gadgets, exaggerated fight scenes and silly costumes, and the obligatory aerial vehicle. The ending, despite featuring a showdown with a supervillain in his hi-tech hideaway, is still resolved in an unsettling way that doesn't provide easy salvation. Instead there's a hero who's also a villain who does something quite naughty, but with good intentions, leading to a good outcome but with a high cost, and this seems to be a bit confusing for the simple vigilantes too.

And there's the tone. No superpowers except for Dr. M, and just a few surreal touches like Rorschach's ever-changing face. Adult themes. Nudity. Sex - one round of sci-fi, silly sex but also some suprisingly tender scenes later on. People die. A lot. With or without buckets of blood. Like I said, this isn't Superman.

Several ideas recur. Superheroes are a reflection of the society that creates them - the Comedian is a parody of the worst of humanity, a drunk murderous rapist, while Rorschach is of course whatever you project onto him. Becoming more powerful and identifying less with society - this is true of all the masked heroes although some are more irresponsible than others, and on a larger scale Dr. Manhattan's power genuinely makes him more and more inhuman.

The star of the show is loveable vigilante psychopath Rorshach, and in particular his voice which will be remembered in future times along with the likes of Darth Vader and Cookie Monster.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The Shape of Things To Come?

Sci Fi Gene is looking forward to Sci-Fi London 2009 although there are still no hints as to what will be on the programme. As promised I am getting my act together and rounding up some Usual Suspects for the 48 hour film competition - more on that story later.

I was thinking about TV game shows described in or inspired by science fiction - not just 1984 and Big Brother but also the novel "The Running Man" which curiously was written in 1984. I read this after seeing the 1987 film and was surprised by the differences between the film and book concepts for the gameshow: in the film, Schwarzenegger's character is chased through a deserted and surreal game arena by Gladiator-style killers; in the book he is on the run in the outside world, having to lose his would-be assassins in slightly more subtle ways while any member of the public could collect a reward for leading the killers to him. The only rule of the game is he has to shoot and mail a film reel at regular intervals revealing his whereabouts. Not so many mobile phones with video capacity back in 1984 were there?

The book is one of the four original Richard Bachman books - the other three are Rage, The Long Walk and Roadwork. By using a pseudonym for these novels Stephen King was free to explore a range of very different ideas. The writing style is recognizably King down to the blog-sized chapters and attention to detail but there's a lot to them: all four build up an incredible amount of tension in their plots, and there are some quite deep and allegorical ideas in there too (particularly with the Long Walk).

Apart from the film, the book also inspired a brief real-life Channel 4 game show Wanted. The show followed the plot of the book fairly closely with three contestants on the run from town to town across the UK, with an ex-MI5 officer trying to track them down. There were two minor deviations from the book - firstly, no-one actually got killed, and secondly, in addition to sending in videos the runners had to complete tasks on the run without being photographed. Two series were made but there was a serious design flaw: the game relied on viewers across the country calling in sightings of the runners - I would have expected most viewers to root for the contestants. [corrected]

Monday, 23 March 2009

There's only one way to find out - fight!

Comparison between two TV series, both appearing in the wake of Dr. Who - one a spin-off, the other created by a competing channel.

Primeval: a bunch of misfits headed by Prof. Cutter (Douglas Henshall) investigate and fight prehistoric monsters that start travelling to and from the present day through mysterious "anomalies" (tears in the space-time continuum).

Torchwood: a bunch of misfits headed by Captain Jack (John Barrowman) investigate and fight aliens that start travelling to Cardiff from other planets and dimensions through a mysterious "rift" (guess...)

Primeval's monsters are real (with a few exceptions, one of which turns out to be from the future - fair enough) and the CGI is spot-on - this is from the studio that brought you Walking With Dinosaurs. The joy of the series, if I'm honest, is seeing a bunch of misfit actors hamming it up in episode one, but coming together as a team and producing some credible and compelling dramatic moments by the end of series one. This is not a drama that takes itself too seriously but there is a clear improvement in the quality of the show over time although it will always be a melodrama. There are flaws - particularly a variant of Jar Jar Binks in the form of an intelligent, flying and highly implausible dinosaur no doubt included for marketing purposes.

Torchwood's monsters are new, or occasionally borrowed from Dr. Who. The conceit is that this is an "adult" version of Dr. Who. Some might say that Dr. Who is already adult - it's both violent and responsible in it's attitude to violence and filming of violence; quite deep themes around love and relationships turn up from time to time; it's still dead scary and I'm now in my 30s! Sadly adult here means adolescent of course (lesbian aliens! a man in love with a cyberwoman!...) Some episodes are well-written and original but I also recognized plots borrowed from Men In Black and Species - worryingly in the first two episodes.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Review: Speed of Dark

Elizabeth Moon is the author of the sci-fi military family epic Serrano Legacy, several stand alone novels and short stories, and some collaborations with Anne McCaffrey and other writers. Several of the short stories have medical themes, drawing from Moon's experience as a paramedic. Moon also won the 2003 Nebula Award with this novel of the near future, written, like Mark Haddon's "The Curious Case Of The Dog In The Night-time" from the point of view of an autistic narrator.

Louis has a niche in life, having been employed, along with other autistic adults, for his pattern recognition skills; his enlightened employer has made allowance for individual sensory needs in order to maximise his comfort and therefore abilities. The set-up is threatened by the jealousy of non-autistic colleagues, by restructuring within the firm, and - the central plot - the appearance of a potential cure for autism.

Both with this book and Haddon's, it's hard to know if the description comes anywhere near the real internal experience of autism. For the most part it feels authentic from an outside viewpoint, although occasionally I think there's an over-optimistic view. For example, Louis' friends' acceptance, on logical grounds, that there aren't enough seats in their favourite restaurant and so latecomers simply accept this and exclude themselves, seems to imply too high a level of social function for a state that's usually defined by difficulties in this area. I could be wrong - this may, like other aspects of the book, be based on personal or family experience. On the other hand the book strongly and rightly rejects the idea that autism per se prevents formation of attachments or friendships, or that it implies an absence of emotion or empathy.

The dilemma posed by the cure is handled well, particularly the different effect it has on the narrator and his colleagues. This is a poignant and often sad exploration of the different ways we define ourselves, autistic or otherwise, and of the nature of friendship.
A sub-plot deals with the pressure brought to bear on the group to take the cure, which forms part of a military research project to actually induce autistic traits - this is an idea that could have huge implications. The way this strand is resolved sidesteps these issues as the novel is more about the choices the characters make when they are finally free to do so.

This is an outstanding book.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Review: The Prestige

A film that is seriously better than the parent book. How often does this happen? I'm struggling to think of other examples here.

A brief note on spoilers in reviews and blogs: I want to review this film/book and explain just what works. The plot is so tightly coiled however that almost anything I put into it will be a spoiler. The setting is not typical science-fiction, rather the conjuring-inspired novel which is becoming a genre of its own (Carter Beats The Devil, The Bullet Trick etc.) Here two playhouse magicians carry out a lifelong and deadly rivalry over the secret behind a certain illusion. However the central theme is one of the major science fiction concepts, associated with paradoxes and solutions in the literature, as well as speculation in real-world science. It isn't time travel or aliens - it's one of the other major concepts.

This is the main area where the film scores higher than the book - the scenario in the book, horrific though it is, skirts around the paradox. The film tackles it head on, and by showing you at the start the surprising (and gory) secret behind a particular magic trick, makes the paradox totally accessible and proves that it pre-dates science fiction! That's all I'm saying. I'd like to write a piece about this particular concept and how it's used in science fiction in general - and I will - but when I do I won't be able to mention the Prestige.

The book and film share a complex plot, both using structure (the book uses viewpoints from two journals, the film uses a non-linear flashback-heavy narrative) to tell the story unravelling the twists in an appropriate order. The result is gripping.

Something that works perfectly in the book and film is the inclusion of legendary physicist Nikola Tesla in a key role. Portraying Tesla essentially as a true worker of magic is romantic but more or less accurate - it just so happens that the mysterious Force he learnt to manipulate was the alternating current; his discoveries and demonstrations would have been indistinguishable from magic at the time to anyone but himself. At the end of his life he was penniless, quite possibly insane, and pursuing a range of concepts including the one in the film, as well as energy weapons and anti-gravity. There's no way of knowing whether he was delusional or onto something and might actually have achieved some of those things. Oh yeah, and whoever thought of casting David Bowie as Tesla was spot on and gets the sci-fi gene seal of approval.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Not sci-fi, my dear Watson

Sherlock Holmes - not sci-fi but writing that seems to appeal to me in the same way, probably as Holmes' approach to solving mysteries is so scientific. As I keep being reminded by trivia buffs: Holmes never actually used the phrase "Elementary, my dear Watson" although I think in chapter 4 of "Hound of the Baskervilles" he does say "Beam me up Scotty."

Two modern-day series I've enjoyed, both strongly inspired by Holmes:

The Liebermann Papers (three novels: Mortal Mischief, Vienna Blood, Fatal Lies) by Frank Tallis, is crime fiction relating to an old branch of science - psychoanalysis. Including it as sci-fi is therefore contrived but I want to review this briefly anyway - these are highly enjoyable whodunnits set in Vienna around the time Freud was developing his theories and the forces of nationalism were just beginning to emerge. The protagonist is a psychiatrist and disciple of Freud who is drawn into assisting a police detective friend with murder investigations. Max Liebermann makes Sherlock Holmes style deductions using Freudian analysis, e.g. interpreting behaviours, psychosomatic symptoms, slips of the tongue and occasionally dreams; the result is joyful and fascinating. Tallis is an experienced clinical psychologist and is able to give a sound, if highly optimistic description of the analysis; the setting is also visualised right down to detailed description of the pastries available in Viennese cafes.

Sherlock Holmes is also the inspiration for the TV series House, one of the few medical programmes I can watch without intense irritation. The links with Holmes were obvious once they were pointed out to me, I really kicked myself - the name, the focus on the logic and the deductive process, the "honest buffoon" sidekick, the addiction to painkillers, etc. Luckily, this series does not make the mistake of becoming a murder mystery -the focus remains medical rather than criminal; each episode resolves around an extremely rare and difficult diagnosis, complicated by equally unusual circumstances. House is not science fiction. While these unlikely presentations often require apparently bizarre treatments, everything's more or less real and the show is extremely well researched. To House the diagnostic puzzle trumps all, and ethics and morals are routinely challenged - his juniors routinely break into their patients' houses to look for clues; they lie to relatives, organ transplant panels etc. and misuse medical procedures (in one example an MRI scan is hijacked to use as a lie detector) House meanwhile hates and avoids contact with patients as he believes they all lie. House asks the question directly in one episode - which is better, a doctor who holds your hand while you die, or one who ignores you while you live? (adding that of course it would suck to have one who ignored you while you died).

I wonder if there's room in the schedules for a science-fiction hospital series. I enjoyed the BBC's Casualty 1907/1908 where real hospital records from a century ago were dramatized. Perhaps there could also be a Casualty 2108.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Time to hit the road to Jeamland [Review: Only Forward]

This is an all-time favourite book. I initially judged it by its stand-out textured cover, and by the Tori Amos verse that introduces the first chapter. The action is divided between two settings, the first a collection of habitation zones each with its own, highly eccentric characteristics, suggestive of superficialty or consciousness and marked by incidental humour (the exaggerated street violence of Red, the Action Centre where no-one is supposedly competitive but they have thirty-seven sub grades of ticket collector, etc.) the second is the mysterious and eerie "Jeamland." The book is accessible to adolescents and adults and loses none of its impact for being an easy read. The twists and turns of the plot are effective and often moving, and this is also one of the best examples of the unreliable narrator I have come across, with a clear sense that the protagonist only gradually comes to trust the reader.
Author Michael Marshall Smith has also written many short stories, including the excellent collection What You Make It, and under the name Michael Marshall has written a series of thrillers starting with The Straw Men.

Friday, 13 March 2009

What do science fiction writers do for a break?

They write science fiction, it seems. Ben Bova is best known for his novels following humanity's colonization of the Solar System - hard sci-fi featuring hard characters. The collection "Laugh Lines" shows a different side of Bova altogether. The novella "The Starcrossed" is the A-side of the collection.

Starcrossed is sci-fi only in the use of a three-dimensional TV tech as a plot device, allowing its inventor Bill Oxnard to develop a new, clearer version which is his route into the world of TV production. It's actually a satire about the production of sci-fi TV series, based on Bova's past experience as a science advisor, and much of it rings true. Each character in the production hierarchy is given their own chapter, and Oxnard is both the stand-in for Bova and the eyes and ears of the reader, allowed to see every crazy aspect of the production.

Bova is mostly successful in hitting his satirical targets and in raising laughs. The ending was too happy for my liking, and the cast list too male-dominated, with some (thankfully not all) female characters present purely as sexual reward or distraction for the males - Bova may be deliberately sending himself up here though. The novella is backed up by some inventive and equally satirical media-focussed short stories - I particularly enjoyed "Crisis of the Month" about journalists vying to find the best disaster stories.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Love at first flight?

I'm a sucker for a strong female character. Ellen Ripley. Honor Harrington. Ace. But Rimrunners (1989) by C.J.Cherryh features one of the hardest, and most substantial characters I've ever come across in sci-fi.

As the novel opens, Bet Yeager, a former starship engineer/marine is stranded on Thule, a Radiator Springs of a space station made irrelevant by the arrival of faster and longer-haul starships. She is homeless and living hand-to-mouth, refusing to become a stationer by taking what little work is available, instead risking everything to be in line for a job when the next starship arrives.

The next starship turns out to be not a scheduled merchanter but the "spook ship" Loki, on an unspecified priority mission. Yeager seizes the opportunity and takes a place on board but is very much out of the frying pan into the fire - she has to adjust to a brutal and unforgiving below-decks society very different from her past experience, and to choose her friends, allies and bedfellows carefully from crewmates who would see her as enemy if they knew of her past (she is a veteran of the events of Downbelow Station).

Cherryh sets the action almost entirely within the ship, and the focus is on the interpersonal relationships and conflicts between crewmembers. The crew are sexually disinhibited - believable given their lack of privacy or personal boundaries in general. They also have very little idea of their ship's current location at any time, although the novel is punctuated by warnings to brace yourself for rocket burns or take your meds for hyperspace transitions (life on board any C.J.Cherryh starship is frequently painful.) Bet is able to glean only a handful of clues about Loki's mission from the officers - these clues, together with Bet's spacer knowledge, prove crucial when the external situation heats up towards the end, and it is only then that Bet has the opportunity to prove to her crewmates and to herself that she has really switched allegiance.

I've not included a picture today however C.J.Cherryh has posted a sketch of Bet Yeager on her website.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Crisis in Orbit

Real life sometimes holds its own against science fiction. The events of the Apollo 13 flight matched any sci-fi action film for excitement and Ron Howard's Apollo 13, does a good job of telling this story and portraying the tension and action; while sticking meticulously to the facts there is also good use of cinematic technique and symbolism (the moment when the flight plan is literally torn up to make part of an oxygen filter is a good example of this).

More recently (although not that recently - in the days before the International Space Station) were the weeks when the Mir space station was in crisis, after a collision with a Progress freighter left it damaged and spinning out of control; as with Apollo 13 there were no casualties and the day was saved by heroic efforts and out-of-the-box thinking by the station crew and ground control teams. "British-born astronaut" Michael Foale was one of the key figures in the solution. To find out more, read Dragonfly: NASA and the crisis aboard Mir, an account that includes all the tensions between American and Russian teams as the crisis unfolded.

For a more general insight into the Mir programme, as well as a touching and beautiful film and more great sci-fi that just happens to be true, watch Out of the Present, a documentary made by cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev during one of his record-breaking stays on Mir - he left in the Communist era and returned to Earth to find Russia an emerging democracy.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Eva Green is people!

Finally found time to see Franklyn: really glad I did. This is an unusual and well-made fantasy set in both the real London and the parallel Meanwhile City. This setting is a brilliantly realised, eccentric and gothic labyrinth of towering buildings and narrow streets lined with votive candles and cult preachers, and patrolled by religious policemen in stovepipe hats (what do you mean, there's no Oscar for best sci-fi hat?) The film tells several stories that are joined by themes of intense loss and the power of imagination to change lives.

Franklyn is intelligently written. This is no dial-a-dystopia - everything about the film is meaningful and deliberate. From the real-life religious architectural elements that are mixed up and distorted to make up the buildings of Meanwhile City, to the story of the City's only non-believer, a masked Ryan Philippe, and his struggle with the authorities, everything has a meaning in the real world plot, and there are several aspects of characters, dialogues and events that seem slightly odd or surreal at the time, but make sense later.

The script develops several tangential plots and gradually draws the characters and events together - by the unintended consequences of each person's actions rather than by pure coincidence. As Eva Green's character is told by a mysterious hospital chaplain, the real tragedy of suicide is to do with the people one hasn't met yet. The intense emotional drama sometimes feels more like a play than a film, although the visuals are definitely cinematic - also, most of the actors play two parts which is a device more commonly seen on the stage. Once again there is a sound reason for this artistic decision. Eva Green carries this film with a challenging and believable portrayal of an arts student locked into a bitter conflict with her mother and repeatedly recording her own suicide attempts. She also finds the time to dye her hair red and play a primary school teacher who appears in another subplot.

I left feeling that I had seen something different, and for all the loss and tragedy this film still leaves you with a sense of wonder. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Greatest Hits

Two more meteorite-based dramas:

Meteor was an original meteorite disaster movie and follows the formula of interwoven survival stories. Unlike the two more recent films most of the action is set on Earth, although the opening sequence is of a Skylab-like space mission that goes badly wrong. With no hi-tech CGI and with fairly generic special effects, the film really relies on it's cast (lead by Sean Connery) and script and there's a lot of action, tension, brow-mopping and increasing sartorial damage as the film progresses.
The Last Train was an underrated terrestrial TV series about a meteorite impact in the UK - survivors, accidentally cryogenically suspended in a railway carriage (don't ask) wake up to an England gone feral and have to search for signs of civilisation while fending off attacks by stray dogs. Again, as this is a very low-tech production, it relies on its' ensemble cast, including a particularly noteworthy performance by Amita Dhiri.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Meteorites vs Comets

Two films so similar in plot there must surely have been at some point a defection from one studio to another. And yet the differences are so extreme as to make one film a sfg-only experience while the other has much to recommend it. Ten reasons why Deep Impact owns Armageddon:

1. Gravity
2. Gravity
3. Gravity
4. Gravity
5. Gravity
6. Gravity
7. Gravity
8. Gravity
9. Gravity gravity gravity
10. see 1 to 9 above.

Gravity refers to the universal gravitational force first described (almost correctly) by Newton. No! merely spinning up Mir (referred to here as The Russian Space Station) does not allow you to walk up the central axis and along a side coridoor. No! you can't walk from the back to the front of the Space Shuttle crew compartment just because the engines are running. No! sucking the AIR out of a VACUUM CHAMBER in an Earth-based training centre does not make you weightless! I'm sure many sci-fi fans share at least part of my phenomenal ability to suspend disbelief but this scene just took the piss.

Surprisingly Armageddon was filmed with extensive NASA cooperation - I'm not sure whether this was also true of Deep Impact, where much more of the focus was on the human experience of those caught up in the events whether on Earth or in space.