Thursday, 28 September 2017

They're already here! [Podcast Round-Up]

To celebrate the eventual take-over of the world by the pod people, two science-fiction commentary podcasts to listen to while you wait for your murderous clone to emerge...

Electric Dreams is Channel 4's anthology of Philip K. Dick short stories adapted for TV. I've blogged about the first two episodes, The Hood Maker and The Impossible Planet, here and here. The Electric Dreams Pod is an unofficial fan podcast hosted by Wayne Henderson and Steve Salyer. The first podcast, naturally enough, is a review of The Hood Maker. The hosts set a laid-back pace and this is a friendly, approachable 'cast not trying to prove anything or score any points. What they have to say though is interesting - without deconstructing the episode, they've given it a lot of thought. In particular their comments about the backstory really made me think about the episode again. If this is the future, why is everyone relying on typewriters and internal combustion? There are actually clues to the backstory in some scenes - for example piles of laptops in the police offices that are clearly no longer in use.

The Functional Nerds are two podcasters, Patrick Hester and John Anealio (of Steampunk Girl fame) reviewing science fiction in its many forms and formats, with a major focus on books, and interviewing authors along the way. They've been broadcasting for a long time and their back catalogue includes some great interviews. The recent Episode 333 features sci-fi journalist Annalee Newitz, one of the founders of, talking about her debut science fiction novel Autonomous.

I will be writing further blogs about science-fiction related podcasts, whether fiction-based or commentary, over the next few weeks. I have some shiny things to share and discuss, but suggestions and leads are also welcome, particularly about podcasts that have been recently released or are in the pipeline.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Star Tours [Review: The Impossible Planet]

The second of Channel 4's Electric Dreams TV dramas is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's short story The Impossible Planet. In a distant, space opera future two cynical intergalactic tour guides, Brian Norton and Ed Andrews, take parties of human tourists on cruises to see the most beautiful sights in the Universe - secretly editing the sights and sounds to make them more dramatic. When an elderly woman knocks on their office door accompanied by her personal robot and a suitcase full of cash, asking for a private tour of Earth, Norton and Andrews know that they can't really do this - after all, Earth was vaporized centuries earlier. But she is persistent, and able to pay cash. Perhaps there's a way they can grant her wish after all...

The Impossible Planet is slightly reminiscent in places of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide or a good episode of Doctor Who. It's just as inventive and darkly funny. However that's as far as it goes in terms of comparison. Amazingly, this is a space-based drama that feels nothing like Star Wars, Star Trek or any other mainstream space opera. It has an eccentric look and feel of its own, from the quirky art-deco spaceships to the wooden android who seems a little too smart.

After watching last week's episode The Hood Maker, then listening to the Electric Dreams podcast about that episode, I realised that a lot more had gone into the backstory than I'd originally picked up - for example there's a whole story about how and why that society had regressed from advanced electronics back to 50s typewriters and internal combustion.

This week I've learnt my lesson - I paid more attention to the story. In this version of the future the dominant industry and political power appears to be space travel and logistics, with space tourism a minor side-swindle. Also, the existence of faster-than-light intergalactic travel means that everything in the Universe has already been discovered and all that's left for humanity is to be idle, gullible tourists.

Once again the cast are brilliant - this time Jack Reynor as Norton, and Geraldine Chaplin as Irma, and the writing is good. Again there's an everyman hero - get used to this, they are PKD's bread and butter - and this one is absolutely typical, the kind of person who's not unrealistically honest, but while he's made his peace with small cons he struggles with his conscience over bigger moral issues. Meanwhile watch that wooden robot - he's up to something, and his own moral choices are also pretty interesting. The ending to this episode is more of a puzzler than The Hood Maker - it makes good artistic sense but you need to be ready to believe a few more impossible things before breakfast. A planet, perhaps.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

What should Channel 4 do next? [Twitter poll]

Boyz n The Hood [Review: The Hood Maker]

Electric Dreams, Channel 4's season of Philip K. Dick dramas, begins with The Hood Maker. This drama is set in an alternate history where tension is rising between "teeps" (telepaths) and "normals". Honor (Holliday Grainger) is a teep recruited by police agent Ross (Richard Madden) to help in the search for anti-teep activists, but when she participates in an interrogation they uncover a trail leading to a group of militants with a secret.

The Hood Maker is a good start. Shot in atmospheric yellows and greens, it's a dystopia of slums and riots on the one hand, and a rising police dictatorship on the other. Grainger, fresh from her fresh-faced performance as Cormorant Strike's assistant Robin, acts her heart out as telepath Honor in a challenging role throwing her from innocence to powerful psychic to traumatised victim. Madden has no such range in his role but achieves something else - a decent portrayal of the everyman hero at the heart of so many PKD stories. The episode is well-written. Conceptual sci-fi works best when the unexpected consequences are explored - here, in a quite harrowing scene, a telepath is abused by a man who forces her to experience his disturbed fantasy. She has nightmares about it - and all the telepaths in the area share the nightmares.

Filmmakers have been plundering Philip K. Dick's legacy of paranoid sci-fi for years but Electric Dreams might be the first attempt to treat his short stories with respect. Usually PKD film adaptations - Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau for example - stretch the short story so far that the original plot and characters are barely recognizable, add shitloads of action and impose a completely new plot, creating a hybrid that may still be enjoyable but lacks the intensity or the irony of the original. Blade Runner is a pleasant exception to this rule- perhaps because it's adapted from a novel rather than a short story and so is cut rather than stretched. Presumably we can also thank Blade Runner for Electric Dreams - the fact that the sequel is about to open must have helped with the funding... 

On the basis of this first installment, Electric Dreams looks to be an exciting addition to the sci-fi anthology catalogue - up there with The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Black Mirror and, going further back in time, Tales Of The Unexpected.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Abyss Seeing You [Review: The Abyss Beyond Dreams]

Nigel Sheldon, the long-lived engineer responsible for the technology of the interstellar Commonwealth, is dispatched on a mission to the Void, a giant black hole-like artefact that is expanding and may threaten the galaxy. With the help of the alien Raiel he enters the void seeking the planet Querencia, but instead finds himself on a different planet Bienvenido where the descendants of a starship previously drawn into the Void have fought for thousands of years against the sinister Fallers.

As you can see it's hard to describe The Abyss Beyond Dreams in short sentences. This is a Peter F. Hamilton novel and as such it's of epic proportions - I can barely lift my Kindle. A novel of this length is a challenge to write or to read - it cannot be indulgent. There must be depth and complexity that justify the length, but it must maintain quality and the relationship with the reader throughout.

The Abyss rises to this challenge through the story of Bienvenido which is told through several viewpoints - the original colonists, their descendants thousands of years later, and Nigel Sheldon and his allies. It's a story of individuals living through and driving societal change in a time of revolution - not unlike Victor Hugo's novel Les Miserables. There are a few differences - Hugo dwells less on the flesh-eating alien mimics, for instance, but there are a lot of common themes too. I don't know if the endings are similar as reading Les Miserables proved to be like swimming through the overlong backstory for treacle. I can't help thinking that that novel would be much better if 95% of the plot were removed and the remaining few words were set to music... but I digress.

The plot of The Abyss is sufficiently complex and multi-layered. At its centre is a revolution which is not what it seems. The constant enemy, the Fallers, are also a good horror creation with their own mystery, although I did wonder why they only appear to have started their invasion when the humans arrived - by rights they should have already have established themselves and been ready with a welcoming party. Sheldon is an interesting character - deeply moral but willing to consider inhuman, terrible acts in order to achieve a greater end, he is the logical product of his long life and his ability to see the bigger picture.

The Abyss is part of a two-novel series set in parallel to the events of the Void Trilogy, many years later than the Commonwealth Saga novels. I previously reviewed The Dreaming Void here and my thoughts about novel length can be found here. These novels are all set in the Commonwealth, a civilisation like Iain M. Banks' Culture in some ways - citizens are biologically and technologically enhanced, interstellar travel and artificial intelligence are commonplace and society is organized around a very, very long life expectancy. Unlike the Culture, the Commonwealth is a continuation of Earth history and is primarily human-led. I enjoyed this return to the universe of the Commonwealth and look forward to the sequel Night Without Stars.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

One Million Years Before Skaro

Mount Teide is a volcano in central Tenerife, the highest of at least 400 volcanoes on the island (the exact number is unknown). The last eruption from this peak was in 1909 and it is currently dormant.
The peak is 3,718m above sea level. Ascent is by cable car and then a short walk up to the rim, although a permit is required for this final stage.
Teide is situated on one side of this large secondary crater. The area inside the crater is a barren landscape very different from the more fertile ground elsewhere on Tenerife - and this bleakness has made it a popular destination for film and TV shoots, fashion shoots and car adverts. The location doubled as the Dalek homeplanet of Skaro in "The Witch's Familiar", an episode of Doctor Who broadcast in 2015.

Teide was also the location for the 1966 epic One Million Years B.C. and the iconic slopes can be seen throughout the film, often overrun with stop-motion dinosaurs.