Saturday, 21 May 2016

Film: The Martian (2015)


The Martian is one of those films with a simple and straightforward plot about which not a lot can be said. There are obvious comparisons with Gravity, the 2013 film which also concentrated on a single astronaut's efforts to get home after a disaster in space. That film concentrated on the experience of being in space – the silence, the awkwardness in a bulky space suit, the disorientation of having no "up" or "down", the sharp clarity of the stations in the airless sunlight, the jaw-dropping views. The Martian is rather more conventional in that most of it takes place on Mars or on Earth. The views of "Mars" are spectacular but not that alien (they were shot in Jordan) so the focus is more on the human and scientific story of how the hero (Matt Damon) manages to stay alive when accidentally left behind on the planet while desperate attempts are made to send a rescue mission.

This is an involving story, one for adults to appreciate. A couple of technical aspects bothered me – maybe they were explained, but if so I missed them. First, although there is much emphasis on the shortage of food and water, oxygen seems in plentiful supply. Huge quantities of it are lost every time the airlock or rover vehicle is opened, and more when hydrazine is burned to create water, but there seem to be no worries about running out of it, so where is it all coming from? The requirement is far more than could feasibly be met by carrying it on the lander.

The second point concerns the decision to send the spacecraft back to collect the stranded man. The huge increase in the time the other astronauts would spend in space is discussed, but only in terms of the length of time they would spend away from their families – the problem of exposure to radiation is not mentioned. Every recent analysis of the practical problems of manned missions to Mars I have read focuses on the danger of radiation as the most difficult to tackle; the background levels of radiation in space and on Mars are much higher than they are on Earth, and one solar flare sweeping though the craft could prove fatal. Genetic damage seems almost inevitable and the cancer risk increased, leading to suggestions that only pensioners should be sent on such missions. Despite this, two of the astronauts are shown at the end of the film, married and with a baby, which made me wince a bit.

More generally, I couldn't help thinking that the feelgood ending was more than a little unlikely. As with Gravity, the likely consequences of any such disasters would be a complete lack of survivors! Despite these niggles it is an enjoyable film, well worth seeing.


Saturday, 14 May 2016

Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie


This is the sequel to the author's multiple-award-winning Ancillary Justice, reviewed here in August 2014. This is the brief background summary which I posted then:

Ancillary Justice is set in a far future in which humanity has spread over a large volume of the galaxy, living uneasily alongside a powerful alien empire, the Presger. The human zone is ruled by the Radchaai in general and the immortal Anaander Mianaai in particular, relying on a fleet of powerful starships inextricably linked to their Artificial Intelligences and given names accordingly (in this respect, reminiscent of Iain M. Banks' Culture novels). Each ship carries a force of soldiers, mainly ancillaries: captives who have been given various enhancements to turn them into super-soldiers but have had their personalities wiped, being replaced with advanced fighting skills and an absolute obedience to the Radchaai. They are mentally linked to each other and to their ship, and are considered to be no longer human.

The story is told in the first person by Breq, whom we soon learn is an ancillary from the One Esk fighting unit of the starship Justice of Toren. Uniquely, she has been separated from her ship for nineteen years…. Breq is on a mission, but exactly what and why we only discover later in the story.

The first thing to say about Ancillary Sword is that there is no point in reading it unless you have previously (and preferably recently) read Ancillary Justice, as the sequel carries on directly with no "the story so far" recap to help readers. In fact, I struggled a bit at first as I had forgotten much of the original story (including the ending), but I gradually recalled what was going on as the book progressed.

In fact, the sequel is easier to read than the original (provided that you have read that first) because the story is much more straightforward; all of the strange background to the universe of the story, only very gradually revealed in Justice, is out in the open. The genderless characters (the Radchaai language does not distinguish between male and female, and everyone is referred to as "she" regardless) are now more familiar, although I still find that aspect unnecessary and a little irritating.

In contrast to Justice, Sword hits the ground running (or strolling, anyway) with action from the start, even though it certainly isn't a particularly action-orientated novel by normal SF standards. Now in charge of a starship, Breq travels to a relatively peaceful backwater at the request of one part of the divided immortal leader Anaander Mianaai, but has her own agenda and priorities. There is lots of attention given to the emotions of the characters and to their relationships (a faint echo of Lois McMaster Bujold there, but without the humour) and also quite a lot of issues left dangling at the end. This gives it an element of marking time while waiting for the final part of the trilogy. In conclusion, I think that these novels, while not great, are certainly good and well worth reading. The third volume (Ancillary Mercy) is already available, so that gets added to my shopping list.


Saturday, 7 May 2016

Films: The Maze Runner II (2015); and The Hunger Games IV (2015)


I reviewed the original The Maze Runner film in June last year, and concluded as follows:

"This is a better film than I had expected: more original, darker in tone and more gripping than most YA fare, with the gradual unravelling of the mystery at the heart of it intriguing adults as much as the target audience. While this particular episode ends with the film, there is clearly much more to be resolved with the conclusion blatantly teeing up a sequel.  So it's just as well that the film was a commercial success, with the next episode due to hit the cinema screens in the autumn. I will be looking forward to it with rather more interest than I am to the final part of The Hunger Games."

Sadly, The Scorch Trials came nowhere near living up to my expectations. It continues the story without any break or recap, leaving this viewer struggling to recall what had led up to it (makers of film sequels seem to assume these days that viewers watch the original again immediately beforehand, but I don't have time for that).  The intriguing aspect of the first film – the maze of the title – disappears and is replaced by a series of dark and dilapdated settings through which the youngsters are constantly being hunted, either by the bad guys from the first film or by people transformed into hideous, violent monsters by disease. All in all it's much more like a horror film than SF, and I found it barely watchable. To make matters worse, the reason for the interest in the young protagonists turns out to be something inherent to them, which was easily determined by the bad guys – so what was the whole Maze scenario for? Maybe that is clear in the books, but unless I blinked at the wrong moment it wasn't explained in the film.

Very disappointing – I am normally a completist but unless the next episode sounds very much better I won't be watching it.

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And so to Mockingjay Part 2, the finale of The Hunger Games about which I have had mixed views throughout. As all sequels seem to these days, the film picks up immediately where the last one left off, without any sort of recap to refresh the memory.

The plot is straightforward: the rebels, with Katniss Everdeen as their figurehead, are advancing on President Snow's headquarters. So it is mainly a running battle as an elite team of games victors fights its way through a series of booby-traps to approach their destination. Part of this involves advancing through tunnels deep underground which are – guess what? – populated by hideous mutants who savagely attack them. These scenes are pretty much interchangeable with the ones in The Scorch Trials mentioned above.

There are a couple of twists at the end of the plot to add interest, but I think that the last two of the series would have been much better combined to achieve a more tautly-plotted screenplay. However, the tendency these days is to spread out a successful franchise as thinly as possible in order to maximise profits, so this is what we get.


Sunday, 1 May 2016

Contact, by Carl Sagan


This is something of a rarity in SF for me, in that I have seen the 1997 film (reviewed here in January 2008) but not previously read the 1985 book. I thought very highly of the film, though, so had great expectations of the book. I was not disappointed.

Ellie Arroway is a radio astronomer in charge of Project Argus, a vast listening post dedicated to SETI – the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. After a discursive few chapters describing her earlier life and how she came to have this job, the reception of the long-awaited message from outer space takes over the story. It is a communication from a far more advanced civilisation, and this immediately kicks off a fierce international political and religious debate about what it means and how to respond to it. It becomes clear that the message is providing instructions concerning a complex machine of unknown purpose, and it is eventually decided to follow the instructions and build it, not without considerable controversy. The machine takes its five occupants (including Ellie) on an incredible journey, but their return merely causes even more problems. Despite this, the story ends on a note of optimism.

To quote his Wiki entry, Carl Sagan was "an American astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, science populariser, and science communicator in astronomy and other natural sciences". His professional knowledge is always evident, as is his understanding of the often political world of big science. There are lots of explanatory passages and he is always willing to park the action in order to include them, which I didn't mind because they are always relevant and interesting. I do like books which inform as well as entertain. Ellie Arroway is an intriguing heroine who readers come to know well, although the other characters are less well described.

Contact makes an interesting comparison with Bill Napier's 2002 book The Lure (reviewed here in April 2011), which also starts with a message from an alien civilisation, and is also well-informed by the author's day job as an astronomer. There is the same emphasis on the political debates about what response to make, and in fact the aliens don't feature at all – the story is all about the impact on humanity of the message. The Lure is more tightly focused than Contact, a gripping thriller rather than a discursive exploration of the issues, but I think that both of them are excellent books in their different ways and very well worth reading.


Saturday, 23 April 2016

Films: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), and Predestination (2014)


During the late 1960s lighthearted spy films and TV series were in vogue, the blend of adventure, glamour and comedy proving very appealing. A good example is the series of feature films starring Dean Martin as agent Matt Helm, and even the doyen of all such spies, James Bond, was increasingly playing it for laughs (although it didn't become a spoof of itself until Roger Moore took over from Sean Connery in the 1970s). Perhaps the most highly regarded of the TV shows (in the UK anyway) was the British series The Avengers - no, not the current lot, the one featuring agents John Steed and especially the marvellous Emma Peel. Into this particular niche dropped the extremely successful US series The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which ran for 105 episodes between 1964 and 1968. I saw many of those when they first appeared on UK TV and remember the principal characters very well, but I've not watched them since, so I was prompted more by curiosity than anything else to view this remake.

The lead character is played by Henry Cavill (currently featuring as Superman, vs Batman that is) who plays Napoleon Solo in quite a similar way to the suave original, Robert Vaughn. His Russian sidekick Ilya Kuyakin is very different, however: I recall David McCallum as small and mild-mannered, but the tall and powerful Armie Hammer plays Ilya as a ruthless, humourless and downright psychotic killer. In the TV series these were the two main characters with only their boss Waverly also featuring regularly, but in this film they are joined by reluctant recruit Gaby, to whom the ubiquitous Alicia Vikander brings some star quality.

The 1960s-set plot isn't really the point, it's merely the necessary backdrop to the entertainment, but for what it's worth it involves the bad guys persuading a nuclear scientist to make an atom bomb for delivery to the remnants of the Nazis. Solo and Kuryakin, initially enemies, are directed to cooperate to thwart the evil plotters. Of course they succeed (sorry about the spoiler!) with various laughs on the way, and the finale prepares the way for a sequel. The film seems to have been moderately successful, so we'll have to wait and see if another appears.

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The Australian film Predestination was not what I had expected. I had vaguely thought it was an action movie about time-travelling agents, but it turned out to be something much more subtle and complex than that, with very little action. It is based on Heinlein's short story "-All You Zombies-", which I don't remember reading. The plot did however remind me of another short story by the same author, By His Bootstraps, which is explained by the fact that AYZ is reportedly a kind of developed version of the ideas in BHB. It also reminded me of the more recent film Looper, reviewed on this blog in Febrary 2013.

Predestination is the kind of film which it is very difficult to write about without spoilers. So I will just say that it involves a whole layer-cake of time-travel paradoxes piling on each other, with scenes sometimes replayed from different viewpoints to reveal entirely different perspectives on events. It is clever and absorbing, but you have to be on your mental toes to keep up. The downside is that this is yet another film which demonstrates that single-timeline time-travel is really not possible for practical (as opposed to technological) reasons. I enjoyed the gradual revelation of what was actually going on, but at the end was left feeling "but that's completely impossible!", even though each individual element seemed logical (sort of). Despite this, if you like this kind of puzzle, watch the film!