Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The spice of life?

After breaking down my resistance to sagas and series in general, I was able to start reading Frank Herbert's classic novel Dune. This is epic in every possible way; characters are increasingly superhuman and settings exotic and deadly; it's a story of heroes, villains, political and personal intrigue. Plenty of authors have described alien worlds and lifeforms; the description here is unusually complete, detailed and therefore feels more plausible; at the same time the evolutionary roles and survival struggles of life forms on the planet become symbols for the human story. You don't so much read this book as dive under the surface of Dune, emerging only in response to vibrations back in the real world, or perhaps when you feel hungry.

The Dune mini-series was made for the Sci-Fi channel. The most dedicated opera fans often go to see operas with their own copies of the libretto and follow the score as they watch. I wonder if, amongst the channel's viewers are some similar-minded sci-fi fans who are watching Dune with copies of the book in their laps. The series has clearly been made for such people; while occasionally there are adaptations for the media, to my mind this is extremely faithful to the book. On a few occasions this is at the cost of dramatic effect; the attempt to stick absolutely to the book's description of Baron Harkonnen leads to an enjoyable but slightly pantomime performance byIan McNeice; in other places the coldness of other characters is slightly overplayed. By today's standards the special effects are artful but unusually low-tech with many scenes clearly using back projection effects, or very contrived camera angles - sometimes this is a good thing. In the old days, by which I mean before Industrial Light and Magic, the limits of special effects forced directors to be much more inventive, and acting was still required at times. Naturally I still enjoyed much of this series.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Series vs stand alone novels

As a child some of my favourite science-fiction books came in series: the Tripods trilogy (John Christopher), the Weathermonger (Peter Dickinson), the Last Legionary (Douglas Hill). Despite this for a long time I've avoided series, instead going for individual novels. I'm not quite sure why I felt I had to even have a view on this. By a series I mean a clear sense of continuity of storyline and characters; if you can read the books in any order (say, Iain M. Banks Culture series, or many of C.J.Cherryh's books) this doesn't seem to bring up the same feeling.

In the last few years I've got into series again: Stephen Baxter (Ring cycle, including the Destiny's Children series which feeds back into Ring), David Weber (Honor Harrington series), Alastair Reynolds (Revelation Space series), Orson Scott Card (Homecoming saga), Gordon Dickson (Dorsai), etc.

What was the problem with series? I thought that authors might be writing more and more books just for the money, and that the books would become repetitive. I also think cinema has given the sequel a bad name.

I now think that most of these concerns were simply wrong, or at least overstated, or only apply to some unusually poor examples of the genre. I have to say I enjoyed and still enjoy the sense of satisfaction at a good book, with a good ending, and the fact that this really is the last contact I will have with a particular universe does seem to make that brief contact more meaningful. There are also some books in series that I wish had been stand-alone: in particular Coalescence far outshines its sequels.

However I've rediscovered some of the great things about series too - they can tell epic storylines that don't easily fit into a single novel, or tell different but consecutive stories within the same universe; they can focus in on one character or location from a previous novel or take the storyline in unexpected directions. Despite what I wrote above, getting to know a good, interesting character and following their further adventures and development is also satisfying. I think many authors continue writing series because they themselves love the scenarios and characters, and a series also lives or dies depending on whether it is enjoyable to a group of readers. A good author is able to give a structure to a series of books - and is still not afraid to conclude them.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Ground Control to Prefect Tom

The Prefect is a novel set in Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space universe. This one is set within the community of orbiting habitats around the planet Yellowstone, known as (ahem) the Glitter Band. This places it before the events of the other Revelation Space novels.

The Glitter Band is made up of about 10,000 habitats each with tens or hundreds of thousands of inhabitants; they are more or less autonomous and each has its' own eccentric society ranging from art collectives to "voluntary tyrannies." The set-up resembles Ancient Greek city-state democracy, with a federal police force, the Panoply, that polices every citizen's access to e-democracy.

The opening chapter introduces Prefects Tom Dreyfus and Thalia Ng as they investigate an electoral anomaly in one of the habitats. Having read Century Rain, a Reynolds novel separate from Revelation Space and an experimental detective story, I wondered if this would be a sci-fi police procedural as this is the initial tone. However, the plot soon widens to take in larger sci-fi concepts and conspiracies. Reynolds' characters are often called upon to make moral choices, and this is taken to extremes in The Prefect as Panoply agents are forced, over and over again, to decide whether to "euthanise" individuals or entire habitats to protect the entire Band; in parallel, similar choices have to be made regarding the treatment of senior prefect Aumonier who is infected by a parasite of unknown origin.

There's a traitorous-senior-officer subplot which is well executed if a bit predictable (I'd love to read a political novel in any genre where a senior officer wasn't plotting to overthrow the commander). On second thoughts, having lived through the Blair-Brown years here in the UK, perhaps this is simply a reflection of real life. And of course let's not forget Klingon culture where it is the duty of the second-in-command to plot to overthrow the captain.

This novel stands up well against the rest of Reynolds' work, full of memorable characters, plot twists and revelations, and thought provoking moral dilemmas on all scales. The Revelation Space universe has now reached escape velocity and left Earth's region of influence - as a result you should definitely read the earlier books before this one (starting with Revelation Space itself), as factions such as the Conjoiners, Ultras and artificial intelligences are more or less taken for granted here.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Knot bad for 48 hours?

Here's a link to "This Is..." a humorous entry in the 48 hour competition that I particularly enjoyed.

This original film was made by team Death Star Holiday Chalets, who include writer Molly Brown. On meeting the team after the screening event I was particularly impressed to learn that they held a dummy run the week before - that's dedication to the cause.

Incidentally, Tube travellers over the next few weeks should watch out - Sci-Fi London festival director Louis Savy will be at large with a hi-tech portable projector screening short films and competition entries indiscriminately. You have been warned.

Sunday, 19 April 2009


Too Much Too Soon premiered this morning at the Apollo Piccadilly Circus, along with a selection of other 48 hour competition entries, to muted applause and nervous laughter. I was kind of dreading this but actually it felt OK. It looked slightly better - on a full-size cinema screen - than I'd expected.

We weren't shortlisted, so I'll try and get the film onto YouTube in the near future. We were rushed for time so entered with a fairly minimal soundtrack - I may try and put together a slightly improved version if I get the chance too.

I enjoyed the selection of other entries I saw, including a few of the shortlisted films. General trends this year: lots of teleport effects, use of Canary Wharf or the Jubilee Line as substitutes for the future (we are guilty of these too), plenty of zombies, and everyone seemed to be using the same Now Thats What I Call Discordant Sound Effects CD. Quality varied but several films were extremely well produced, including a few with awesome soundtracks - overall the standard was higher than last year.

I know at least one other team was also ejected from Canary Wharf and there may be more - Wharf security probably fought a weekend-long running battle against amateur filmmakers. Also, we were pretty tired by the end but the two secret agents who spent the entire weekend running up and down the Westminster Station escalators must have been fairly knackered.

Watch out for the shortlist on the Sci-Fi channel, then all the films on the festival website in a month or so. There were some really funny entries - several of my favourites weren't shortlisted either. I'll post links to them when I can, for now I'll just say watch out for string and kettles.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Three favourite books

Looking forward to a screening of the 48 hour competition short films this weekend - our team, Second Foundation, will be there in force. Last year's event produced a high quality winner and plenty of enjoyable entries - my review here, the films can also be seen here. Moving on:

My relationship with Terry Pratchett's novels seems to be different from most other fans I have spoken to. For me the majority of the Discworld series are amusing and readable satire but not that special. There are exceptions - the recent novel Night Watch is excellent and Sam Vimes joins the pantheon of time-travellers sharing the forename Sam (Sam Beckett, Sam Tyler etc...)

The stand-out Pratchett books are the first Discworld novel (The Colour of Magic) and two other novels, Dark Side of the Sun and Strata. The first is well-liked but quite different from the later, much more satirical books - it's a tale of magic with a semi-scientific feel, reminiscent of Ursula K. le Guin in terms of "hard" magical laws including conservation of momentum - and to my mind the humour is more original and works better.

Strata stands out as an attempt to link Discworld, or a discworld, with the real universe in a sci-fi setting. It's a creationist story with ancient races creating younger races and laying down fossil records to disguise their origins, and this is another book with a mind-blowing, emotionally resonant twist in the tale.

The third book, Dark Side of the Sun is pre-Discworld space opera and I don't know anyone else who's read it although there are ideas in Alastair Reynold's fiction that make me wonder.... Read it. Discworld's gain has been space opera's loss. I may write more about this book another day, if I can find my copy.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Please release me!

Looking through the Sci-Fi London programme I noticed this film hasn't made the festival. Sleep Dealer is released in the US on 17th April but apart from one showing at Edinburgh in June (last year) I'm not aware of plans to screen it in the UK. It's a shame - no doubt there will eventually be a DVD release but this is an indie film I would love to see in the cinema.

The plot takes in themes of immigration, poverty and exploitation, through two emerging markets - cheap labour for robotic remote control (a natural extension of the call centre economy) and sale of recorded dreams and memories (more fantastical). The former idea appeals to me as I'd had a similar concept in mind for Human Touch. The trailer and the few details provided at interviews show some striking visuals with a lot of thought going into the design. This film was a winner at Sundance and has been noticed at other festivals too so it hasn't appeared completely out of the blue.

I've got no way of knowing whether this film is actually as intelligent or stylish as it should be, but this is exactly the kind of film I would pay to see on the big screen and hope it gets its chance. [edited 17.4.09]

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Do mechanoids dream of electric skutters?

Red Dwarf Back to Earth: caught episode 3 tonight and was pleasantly surprised - perhaps there actually was a point to this exercise after all. While TV characters entering the real world and tracking down their creator is not an original concept by any means, this final episode actually managed to wring some decent comedy from the situations, while the many nods to "the show's original inspiration", Blade Runner, were welcome and, if not bringing actual depth, at least added some perspective and dimension to the show. Two of these scenes, the crew fleeing for their life through a Chinatown market and the appearance of Kochanski as Rachael, were also beautifully filmed.

While the concept for this three-off appears embarrassingly contrived, it's consistent with Red Dwarf past episodes that have brought the crew back to Earth temporarily in a variety of ways - from the slides taking them back to the mansion of the Tension Sheet inventor, through the Backwards contracting universe scenario, to the classic episode Better than Life - Back to Earth is in some ways a remake of the latter.
I was trying to work out whether Red Dwarf was really inspired by Blade Runner. There aren't too many obvious connections! However after tonight I'm willing to give the Grant Naylor gestalt the benefit of the doubt, because a) inspiration can be as lateral as you like, and b) it's one of those things that would be cool if it were true.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Reheats Fat Worms?

Like a swarm of, well, Swarm, Planet of the Dead has swept across the UK - an enjoyable if fairly lightweight Doctor Who special with Michelle Ryan (as Tomb Raider-style aristocratic thief Lady Christina Blakeley), and Lee Evans (as a bumbling UNIT professor) both leaving their subtle heads at home. This wasn't so much a plot as a series of cool visual concepts (the 200 bus stranded on an alien desert, the approaching Swarm, the crashed Tritovore spaceship).

The next special, The Waters of Mars (anagram) may strike a more sinister note. Prophecies in Planet of the Dead, hints in Tennant's recent interviews and the trailer all point to something ominous on the way - here's hoping. Like the title - sadly it doesn't imply that John Carpenter is directing...

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Review: What Happened To The Indians

Terence Shannon's novel starts on familiar ground - pilot UFO sightings and mysterious plane crashes, the Roswell autopsy and CIA cover-ups. Don't be fooled - this is actually a novel about nuclear stand-off, taking its cues from West Wing, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the all-time classic Wargames as much as the X-Files.

The arrival of an alien presence generates a White House crisis and divides the President's emergency committee into hawks and doves, with the President seemingly swayed between the two sides. The crisis escalates in steps and at each stage the committee have to decide how to react. The debate is seen through the eyes of Doyle, a footsoldier drafted into the committee -
this third-person observer perspective works particularly well. Most of the other characters on the committee fall quickly into their hawk or dove stereotypes, however the President is convincing and seems genuinely thrown by the challenge he faces; also Doyle's boss Thurman Mather quickly develops into a likeable antihero. Every government office should have a Thurman Mather.

The central idea is the parallel between humanity's first encounter with the aliens, and the native Americans' first encounters with colonists - did the natives squander a brief window of opportunity to turn the invasion back? It's an apt analogy - the aliens have technological supremacy from the start and make few efforts to communicate, so the humans have to make guesses about their motivation based on a few data points, ultimately gambling the future of the planet on their theory.

Shannon raises the fascinating point that the biggest threat to the native American population over the years wasn't outright warfare but culture-shock. There's a sequence where humans are taken aboard an alien vessel and I wondered if this would develop into a culture-shock subplot. Instead military events on the ground take over and the fate of this interesting group is not reported. Also I couldn't help but wish for a native American character in the plot, historically and culturally aware, to make a few more links with the past, although I'd hate to lose likeable redneck Doyle in the process.

This novel got me thinking about history and colonization. While they may or may not have missed opportunities, I'm not certain that the native Americans didn't actually fight back - seems to me they more or less invented the concept of asymmetric warfare out West. Also, consider the South American civilizations who responded to the Conquistadors with mass suicides and fights-to-the-death perhaps even more insane than some of the options considered by the committee; history suggests the Conquistadors were too busy half-inching ancient treasures to notice, and these civilizations are more or less gone while there's still a significant native American presence and culture in the US. Overall this is an enjoyable and tense first novel although with a few under-developed elements. If you're interested to read more there's a sample chapter on Fantasy Debut here, and the author can be contacted via this e-mail. [updated 17.4.09]

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Smoke me a kipper

Red Dwarf: Back To Earth episode 1 premiered on Dave last night with Craig, Danny, Robert and Chris back in their roles. Sadly there was no Norman Lovett or Hattie Hayridge, however the episode introduced Sophie Winkleman as Katerina, a high-ranking holographic officer set on outranking Rimmer. This episode was enjoyable although the wit and humour is not on a par with anything in the first two series. Initially I also thought the gleaming new sets took away some of the charm of earlier episodes - and I wondered if the series might be taken too seriously. However one diving bell, one giant purple latex squid tentacle and several delightfully hammed-up performances later I was reassured that this was a comedy. There's also some good comedy chemistry between Barrie and Winkleman. It was also cool to see the Scutters back in the frame too - these robots appeared frequently in the early episodes but were only rarely seen after this due to technical difficulties in operating them on set.

This is the opener for a weekend of sci-fi across the UK channels - tonight there are the second episodes of Red Dwarf (Dave) and Primeval (ITV) while over on the BBC Doctor Who teams up with Bionic Woman actress Michelle Ryan in Planet of the Dead.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Speed racers

I thought my flying number 25 bus was OK given I had about eight minutes to design it. Yesterday I came across two inspiring collections of future vehicle concept art: Firstly, the BBC reported on this attempt to redesign the ambulance as an off-road vehicle with ejector seats to launch paramedics into the thick of the action, along with other innovations. This is taken from an art exhibition that has unfortunately now finished.

Secondly, Dark Roasted Blend reviews this book of sci-fi art by Daniel Simon. No further comment.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Post apocalypse

I gather it's traditional for these film competitions to end with a rush for the finish line. I'd like to say it feels a bit like a marathon but then I've never run a full marathon, so unlike this person I may not be in a position to make that comparison.

I think we finished in entirely appropriate style, after two of us spent the last night editing and compositing, we discovered with less than an hour to the deadline that we don't seem to be able to export the film. Cue much angst, and a real, tense dash across London trying to get the film off the computer and get back to the Apollo cinema for the drop-off. Perhaps one of these would have helped...

Thanks to some really helpful people in Pret and KallKwik we dashed across London with a DVD and made the drop-off with minutes to spare! and since then I've got back in touch with all that tiredness I'd been storing up so it's a bit of a blur now. I vaguely remember being given some book and DVD giveaways and spouting gibberish to the festival documentarists. It's a good feeling to have finished and we could easily have been foiled by those last minute tech difficulties.

48 hours to save the world - update 4

OK, it's half past five. Have been across London and back to deliver cgi sequences and help with the editing, although how much "help" I can be at this point may be unclear. Curiously, although there were about 100 teams at the briefing, we didn't run into any others during our location shoots yesterday night or this morning. I'm looking forward to seeing what other teams got up to.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

48 hours to save the world - update 3

10.30 on Sunday night and I'm really tired now. We wrapped at about 2 this afternoon but I'm still trying to get the last few cgi sequences done while elsewhere the editing goes on through the night too.

48 Hours to save the world - update 2

Currently living on caffeine and working around technical hitches. We may or may not be half way through shooting at this point. For that matter we may or may not be on course to finish. Anyway, here's a shot from a sequence I'm working on:

Saturday, 4 April 2009

48 Hours To Save The World - update 1

So far, so good. We got our title and dialogue at the briefing, and came up with a scenario (suitably post-apocalyptic), meanwhile the team is growing - as ever I'm amazed at people's willingness to give up their time! This time we should have decent sound and probably an original soundtrack. Have checked out the first location and got lots of stock footage, now waiting for the rest of the team to converge so we can shoot the first few scenes. It's going to be a rush, particularly as we're planning to include some CGI. More on that story later...

Friday, 3 April 2009

Sci-Fi London 2009

Sci-Fi London have announced their 2009 programme, including an impressive range of indie films, as well as a chance to see David Bowie in Labyrinth again, and plenty of other events. I'm spoiled for choice, although I am intrigued by the concept of Cryptic which may be the logical extension of time travel as portrayed in Doctor Who or Bill and Ted.

Another part of the festival, the 48 hour film competition, is running this weekend - so watch out for strange activities on the Capital's streets. I'm entering a team so expect a couple of sleepless nights. I'll post some updates as we go along and although I don't think we can release the film before the competition I may sneak in a few pictures...