Sunday, 30 August 2009

We Need To Talk About Esther [Review: Orphan]

Esther, played by Isabelle Fuhrman in Orphan, is the new scary movie kid on the block. She's adopted by a couple who have two children of their own but are also grieving after a stillbirth, after charming them at an orphanage with her shy, withdrawn persona and her advanced but innocent painting - but her plans for her adoptive family are of course sinister, and the violence escalates towards an inevitably bloody, Rasputin-esque finale.

Cinema, and particularly horror cinema, is obsessed with evil children - there are so many examples so I'll just mention a few favourites: Damien (The Omen films), or the Children of the Corn, or Sadako (Ring). Generally the evil is explained or justified in supernatural terms, and there's no attempt to portray these children as having human motivation. Another, different breed of evil child is portrayed in Lionel Shriver's novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, describing the lead-up to a Columbine-like mass killing. Kevin is the opposite of Damien - utterly human and so when we find we can't answer those fundamental questions about the nature of his evil, we can't dismiss them as demonic either.

Esther is every bit as creepy as Damien, but her physical brutality is matched by psychological rather than paranormal abilities. However Esther's motivation isn't explored, and both this and any conclusions about the nature of childhood evil are sidestepped by one of the film's two major twists (the other, a brilliant visual twist, concerns the real meaning of the paintings) so she remains a cipher for pure evil rather than a real character. To this extent her adoptive, deaf sister Max, played by Aryanne Engineer, is much more of an interesting character - she walks a tightrope between complicity and resistance, motivated by fascination with and fear of Esther and a sense that no-one else will be able to protect her.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Loving the inner pod-person [Review: The Host]

Stephenie Meyer's novel is told from the point of view of Wanderer, a member of a parasitic alien race not unlike the Trill symbionts in Deep Space Nine or the Goa'Uld in Stargate. Wanderer's race, the Souls, have already conquered the Earth - more or less - but a few indomitable Gauls still hold out against the Romans. Souls also hold peace-loving but hypocritical ideals - proclaiming respect for their hosts but choosing to ignore the fact that by taking over human bodies they are killing the former inhabitants; they are generally unable to lie apart from members of the Seeker caste who hunt down free humans.

Like The Time Traveller's Wife, The Host uses science fiction concepts as a way of exploring relationships: here the Stockholm-like relationship between Wanderer and her re-emergent host personality, Melanie; their feelings for other humans as well as Wanderer's relationships with her own race and with humanity - a version of the double agent's dilemma. The novel centres on the love triangle that develops between Melanie, Wanderer and Melanie's former lover, and as you would hope the book has a lot of fun with the emotional chaos that results.

The Host does ask you to believe at least six impossible things before breakfast, such as the human rebels, particularly those who have loved Melanie, coming to accept Wanderer so quickly. That's a large leap - and is handled skillfully, with different characters behaving in line with their own backstories. So the colony doctor is jealous of the aliens' power to heal the bodies of their hosts; while the colony's de facto leader is motivated by curiousity. Even with acceptance, Wanderer's bizarre situation is never forgotten or put to one side.
Wanderer and Melanie are both unusually strong characters - both more determined, open minded, stoic and adaptable than others of their respective species, and this helps to justify the way their relationship develops. Their exchanges are surreal and delightful given the parasitic situation - when circumstances force Melanie to assist Wanderer she exclaims "Us girls have to stick together!"

I've been reading this book in public but I've not seen any other male readers in my travels. Souls could be seen as a feminine alien race at least in their language which is pleasantly technobabble-free: the planets they have previously conquered include "The Planet of the Flowers" and "Singing World" and they give themselves names such as "Sunlight Passing Through Ice." They even have medicines called "No Pain," "Heal" and "Inside Clean."

This book has been described elsewhere as Stephenie Meyer's first novel for adults - this is only partly true. While both the main characters are adult - Wanderer has lived many lives, Melanie a particularly eventful one on the run, Wanderer is new to human sexuality and is overwhelmed by it; this and also her quest for identity and independence from the Souls are very much adolescent themes. Of course these themes don't necessarily stop being relevant as you get older and as an adult I found this book well written and satisfying.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Giraffe terror comes to London [Review: Un Lun Dun]

This China Mieville novel is written for the teenage or YA reader however can be enjoyed at any age. The scenario, in which two friends are transported magically into an alternative version of London where all the rubbish goes, is reminiscent of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere although, unfettered by Underground station puns, Mieville's fantasy seems a little fresher.

The book sends up many fantasy cliches - the "chosen one" Zanna is incapacitated early leaving her ordinary, prophecy-free friend Deeba to save the day. In doing so Deeba is tasked with a chain of thirteen magical-object quests - but refreshingly decides to jump straight to the last one. The inhabitants of UnLunDun are utterly ridiculous (martial arts dustbins, animate umbrellas etc.) but still manage to be both engaging and threatening at times, and the Smog as an evil entity works well even though the anti-pollution message is perhaps a little too obvious. Finally Mieville proves with this novel that he clearly understands the true terror of the giraffe - I'm now keeping my second-storey windows firmly closed at night.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Squid with noodles: 8 hours, serves one

Spent another puzzling night working with Blender. Having camera-tracked and camera-mapped my background footage, I separated the architeuthis sylvaticus scene into layers to be modified and recombined through the node compositor (for example, I want to darken the background and give it a cold, bluish tint while keeping the luminous yellow eyes. I'm then recombining the layers so that the subject is lying mostly hidden in the sand. Here's my noodle network so far (noodles are the data lines connecting the nodes):

I'm discovering that even with only a few nodes it's really easy to get the noodles tangled up, also to lose track of what modifications you've made on the various button menus, and (unfortunately) to save over the last working combination of settings - having finally got back to a working network I'm now backing up my backups. The node compositor is a bit like Tetris - I find I continue to play it in my sleep.

Architeuthis sylvaticus, like it's deep sea relatives and this octopus, is a master of disguise:

- that's why you rarely see one. (This is an amazing youtube clip but there's no sound from halfway through). Currently I'm simulating camouflage by just making my Architeuthis part-transparent except for the eyes. It's almost right but I'll try a couple of other solutions and possibly animate the camouflage. It also needs to cast a shadow onto the plane behind it but so far Blender is refusing to render the shadows. On the plus side I'm learning as I go - but it was so much easier doing this with sand...

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Lovecraft, science and the supernatural

Some thoughts on reading H.P. Lovecraft's short stories: initially I was reminded of H.G. Wells, who both preceded and outlived Lovecraft. Both writers took the traditions of fantastic fiction and completely transformed it into something new, and of course both have had a huge impact on twentieth century fiction.

There are similarities in the writing style but also the frequent presence of scientific characters and themes. Both writers seem to have a high regard for scientists and scientific method. However science plays a different role in each. For H.G. Wells it's all about the scientific ideal - there can't be anything in Nature, or the Universe that isn't understandable.

For Lovecraft science has kind of the opposite meaning. The role of the scientist in his fiction seems to be firstly to prove by scientific method that the protagonist is not simply mad, at least at the beginning - being driven mad by exposure to horror is a common theme; and secondly to prove by failure that the phenomenon is not explicable in scientific terms, usually as it originates from another planet or dimension where our physics does not necessarily apply. So, while for Wells there is no supernatural, for Lovecraft the supernatural must be proven.

Whether they are actually scientists or not Lovecraftian protagonists tend to be sceptical until faced with insurmountable evidence of the awful reality. A typical Lovecraftian plot is basically the gradual realisation that the horror is actually real, with the gradual revelation of the complex vision - for example the pivot that changes The Call Of Cthulhu from a good old yarn into something more powerful is the moment where the protagonist connects all the simultaneous events around the world.

Lovecraft's horrors vary from the intangible creeping liquid or gas (The Colour Out Of Space) through creatures never quite seen but hinted at by mysterious footprints, through complex conspiracy scenarios and alien encounters (The Call of Cthulhu). Creatures tend to combine elements of different known Earth species, although scaly wings capable of traversing the ether are a frequent adaptation. The creature (or intangible) is only the start - the horrors extend heavily into locations which are utterly overgrown by evil auras, lead to subtle or not so subtle mutations in the landscape, plants, animals and people around them (The Colour Out Of Space, The Shadow Over Innsmouth), cause psychological mayhem through dreams, hallucinations and unexplained dread; and supernatural horrors are surrounded and augmented by horrific human cults.

At time of writing you can find out more about Lovecraft here; also many of the stories are available as free e-books here, or on any number of other websites. If you have a preference for the white stuff, all stories I refer to here can be found in The Call Of Cthulhu: And Other Weird Stories (Penguin).

(The Sandcastles of Cthulhu)

Saturday, 15 August 2009

The patter of tiny feet [Review: King Rat]

The first of China Mieville's novels, King Rat, is set in more or less present-day London, although the grime and muck is described just as colourfully as in later novels such as Perdido Street Station. The plot takes the hero, Saul, on a free-running tour of the rooftops and sewers of London in the company of his new-found uncle, the titular humanoid rat, and his bird and spider analogues as they fight for survival against their nemesis who is eventually unmasked as a familiar mythical figure. The book also explores club culture, particularly the jungle scene, and jungle music proves central to the final showdown.

This is a good book and within it you can see the beginnings of Mieville's later masterstrokes - familiar environments in London are seen from new angles and rendered threatening, while other imaginary or fantastic locations are brought to life and made familiar; whilst the origins of Mieville's fantasy characters are made clear at the end, they remain original and captivating creations. Saul is a little more shaky in the beginning - there are lots of reasons he might have decided to distrust the authorities and go on the run following his father's mysterious death, but his motivation at this point seems too vague. Saul's rat-like tough-guy character is gradually fleshed out as he learns to free-run and survive and uncovers his own past.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

The Machines

I was thinking about the various plot devices that allow time travel. In addition to opening the way for a time travel plot, the nature of the device can itself be a symbol, or it can add to a novel or film in other ways - it can give a film a unique style, say something about the traveller, or it can be a source of humour.

Before H.G. Wells, time travel was something spiritual - the ghosts of Christmas Past or Future in A Christmas Carol - or accidental, as in the blow to the head of the Connecticut Yankee. Wells introduced the mechanical Time Machine, bringing time travel into the realm of human control. These trends continue in more recent sci-fi - mechanical Time Machines include the garage physics experiment in Primer, while accidental time travel includes the genetic disorder described in The Time Traveller's Wife. The blow to the head method is also alive and well in Life On Mars, a series heavily inspired by the Mark Twain novel. There are less spiritual time travellers these days. However it makes perfect sense, for example, that Nick Hornby's Sam might be sent back to revisit key moments in his life by his Tony Hawk poster as it represents a kind of father figure/guardian angel.

I've mentioned Kate and Leopold before: it's not my favourite film. However it is a good example of time travel symbolising the risks that are taken in life; and this is portrayed as literally jumping off a bridge.

The bizarre series of committee meetings that led to the creation of the Tardis has been well described. However I think it's also reasonable to think of the Police Box as an authority image, which along with the Doctor's title, is consistent with Doctor Who's interventionalist themes. Another telephone box time machine features in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, perhaps as a reference to Doctor Who, but this time the process of time travel becomes a comic search through a telephone directory and network.

My final example is a classic time machine: the deLorean in Back To The Future - and as Dr. Emmett Brown says: "The way I see it, if you're gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?"

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Was the truth out there?

A real life story that is beginning to resemble a conspiracy thriller: Gary McKinnon is to be extradited for trial in the U.S. after allegedly hacking into various government computers to find evidence of UFOs. Mr. McKinnon was first arrested in 2002 but there have been a series of cases and appeals since - and further appeals are still possible.

I don't want to call for a particular outcome from the trial - I feel I don't know the facts well enough, and also don't believe in trial by media. However I do want to express the wish that he has access to a fair trial wherever it takes place, and if it is the case that he has Asperger's syndrome, as has been reported, that this is taken into account and the trial is carried out in a way that does not place him at a disadvantage.

McKinnon has stated in a BBC interview that he was able to access military computers as many still had their default password settings. He has also appeared on a discussion panel at an Infosec conference - you might remember, that's the organization that carried out surveys giving out free pens to London commuters in return for their passwords - the most common was "password" in 2002 but this had changed to the much safer "admin" by 2003.

Mr. McKinnon seems to have stirred up a real hornet's nest within the Vast Machine: I can't help wondering, what did he find?

Asperger's syndrome is also a theme of this upcoming film which I might just go and see:

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Dark side of the Moon [Review: Moon]

Moon is better than 2001. It's better than Alien. I do not make these statements lightly but I left the cinema moved and shaken by Duncan Jones' film.

The short answer to what is so moving about this film: go and see it. The longer answer is: great performances, a great story, the desolate beauty of the lunar setting, go and see it. This review, written about half an hour after leaving the cinema, involves a bit of reverse engineering - starting with the conclusion, I am working backwards to understand exactly what left me with such a strong impression.

The film is essentially a two hander led by Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell, the sole occupant of a lunar mining base, and Kevin Spacey as the voice of his assistant robot GERTY. Sam is coming to the end of a three year contract and preparing for his return to Earth, and his family. However the stress has been getting to him, and with only a few weeks to go, a rover accident leads to a series of events and discoveries that completely undermine Sam's understanding of his world.

Moon opens with a back-story - the solution to the Earth's energy crisis rests on mining lunar helium-3 for fusion - that is simple enough to be explained in a few seconds, and plausible enough to support the later twists. The attention to detail in the moon base design, with it's padded coridoors, ceiling tracks for GERTY, rover vehicles and giant harvesters, also helps with plausibility while being a fascinating study in itself. The external lunar landscapes are mesmerizing and the sense that you are transported to a real place is very strong. There are a lot of secrets on Sarong base. Moon never forgets it is a science fiction movie, or that it is a story about a human being, even though at times it takes you into situations as bizarre as those of 2001 or perhaps Solaris. The story and back-story is misleadingly simple given the number of themes it explores on both personal and humanity-wide scales.

The comparison with 2001 and Alien comes from the similarities in look and feel of Moon, particularly the base interior, as well as many of the sci-fi themes. However initial references and similarities often mask very different concepts. Like HAL, robot GERTY is an exploration of the uneasy relationship between man and machine; however GERTY is also an original science fiction creation with it's emoticon screen, and ultimately plays a very different role to HAL. Like the Weyland-Yutani corporation in Alien, Lunar Industries explores the theme of corporate power; but the tale of out-of-sight human exploitation is told much more effectively - it's not just about power or paranoia for it's own sake but about the terrible means humans will go to, and justify, in order to achieve something great.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Space opera to go [Reviews: Galaxy On Fire and Deep]

I'm reviewing two java mobile phone games by FishLabs: Galaxy on Fire and Deep Submarine Odyssey. Both use the same 3D graphics engine. The former is a space combat sim with Freelancer style missions - follow the waypoints and shoot down the enemy ships, although there is some mission variation - shoot down mines, junk or asteroids, carry a passenger/cargo to a waypoint, defend or attack a freight convoy, disable a cap ship. The game is set in an endless war between the humans and the alien Vossk, with some pesky pirates thrown in for good measure. Arrr. Storyline missions are linear however when you complete them the game opens out, allowing you to explore the galaxy, continue trading ships and upgrading weapons, and take on further missions. If you travel far enough you can switch allegiance and fly missions for the Vossk, attacking the human convoys, fighters or cap ships, and trade your ship and weapons in for Vossk equivalents. Flying and fighting are simple and playable, and happily the game features some really corny dialogue.

Galaxy on Fire seems to be an attempt to code a space-based exploration game with some freedom of play. Deep is a direct descendent of Galaxy - the graphics and interface are almost identical but the gameplay is much deeper. Elite, the original freeform space game, inspired both space and submarine-based sims (UIM ring any bells?) and this game is set on a submerged world, where submarines travel between floating colonies. Once again you are placed in a war between two factions and have to complete missions similar to those in Galaxy, however a key gameplay element has been added - fishing. Using a kind of tractor beam you can hunt down about twenty different kinds of fish and algae, as well as picking up cargo from downed subs.

As the game progresses you can either sell your cargo, or earn money from fishing missions, or take your catch to processing stations where you can create and sell other products. This time you have to actually travel from place to place using portals, and approach stations to dock (auto-only, Elite fans!) Ship upgrades are more complex - in addition to weaponry and the harpoons you have to equip your ship with radiation shields to reach the high-altitude stations, or hull reinforcement for low-altitude. And while I still think only Frontier ever really got the ship upgrade system right, Deep comes close as you can opt for heavy and slow ships with a huge capacity or small fast multi-weapon subs depending on whether you are a fisher or a fighter or to suit different mission types. One more feature of the game stands out - as you progress through the story missions, the political map changes as stations switch alliegance.