Wednesday, 4 July 2018

TV – Can science make me perfect?

BBC4 recently screened a fascinating programme on the human body: Can Science Make Me Perfect?. Alice Roberts, Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham and an excellent presenter (her Wiki page calls her "an English anatomist, osteoarchaeologist, physical anthropologist, palaeopathologist, television presenter and author.") was given the challenge of redesigning the human body to avoid its weaknesses and add some strengths. So she identified some major weaknesses and looked for solutions elsewhere in the animal world, plus considered what else might usefully be adopted.

Some of the proposed improvements were very subtle and would not be noticeable to the naked eye: for instance, we get heart attacks because we only have one major artery for each side of the heart, and these can get blocked. Some animals (including dogs) have a network of interconnecting blood vessels in and around the heart, so if one gets blocked, there are always alternative routes. Also, some animals have small "secondary hearts" to help with circulation - one of those in each thigh would greatly help with common circulation problems causing varicose veins etc. Another subtle one is a redesign of the throat area to provide a better separation between swallowing and breathing, to minimise the risk of choking (and snoring!). Also, our lungs are very inefficient compared with birds, who have a much better air-handling system, so that can be added to the list.

Other suggested changes are more obvious - and controversial: back problems bother many of us, so a redesign of the lower back to strengthen and support that area would help. Pregnancy and childbirth are highly problematic for humans because of our huge head - but marsupials get over this by giving birth to jelly-bean sized babies which grow to full size in an external pouch, so add that in. Most striking of all are the legs: ours were originally developed for tree-climbing and moving about on all fours and are badly designed for walking and running, causing us all sorts of problems in our complicated joints and tendons. Bird legs like those of an ostrich or emu are more specialised and allow the birds to maintain a high running speed for long periods with minimal stress and energy expenditure.

Finally some minor improvements: larger, steerable ears to enable us to focus our attention on what we want to hear even against a noisy background, and more efficiently designed eyes so we can see more clearly - including in the dark. One very useful change – the addition of melanin chromatophores to our skin, so that it quickly becomes dark brown in strong sunlight to protect us from burning and skin cancer, but lightens up in other circumstances to allow the formation of vitamin D (not mentioned was that this might well help to solve some persistent social problems).

As these ideas were developed, an anatomical artist was working on the design, with model-makers from the film world making a full-sized model of what she would look like with all of these changes.  There is a a photo of the result (standing next to the original) here: taken from her website:

A thought-provoking programme, which was instructive in explaining how the human body has evolved rather imperfectly. On the other hand, there would also be downsides to some of the changes proposed (e.g. babies develop more slowly out of the womb, so a marsupial mum's pouch would be occupied for years).

I would add a couple of suggestions to her list: the ability that some dogs apparently have to identify illnesses in people, including cancers, just by smell. Now that would really be useful – think of the savings in screening programmes! Even more so would be to acquire the ability of the naked mole rat to be highly resistant to cancers.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

The Light Ages, and The House of Storms, by Ian R. MacLeod

Yet another book that has been sitting on my reading pile for years (it was published in 2003). I finally decided to read The Light Ages following my usual highly discriminating selection process: I accidentally kicked over a pile of books and this was the first one I picked up. I have to admit I was intrigued by the recommendations on the cover, with Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, Gene Wolf and Christopher Fowler all featured, and comparisons made with Dickens, China Miéville, Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy (must read that again sometime), and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series (must read that again soon).

So what is it all about? It’s an alternative world fantasy, one in which the primary difference from our own dear if somewhat battered planet is the existence of aether: a magical substance which is pumped out of the ground and used – well, to make everything work. A little bit of aether, properly channelled by the minds and words of highly trained guildsmen, can be used to make the most rickety bridge solid, the most botched-up steam engine run smoothly at otherwise impossible pressures, and to send messages across the country at the speed of thought. Of course, that means that people don’t have to bother much with technology, which is fairly primitive. Also needless to say, each specialism has its own guild which jealously guards its secrets, and the Grandmasters of which are wealthy beyond the dreams of championship footballers resident in tax havens, as well as wielding huge political power. But aether is dangerous to meddle with, and those who are exposed to too much of it become altered….gradually becoming less human to the horror of their neighbours, at which point the changelings are ferried away to secure institutions for their remaining years.

Robert Borrows, from whose viewpoint the story is told, is the son of a low-level guildsman who works in the factory which processes aether mined from deep underground. We learn much about his life and the strange, tightly stratified, static society in which he lives.  He is supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps, as youngsters traditionally do, but he remains an outsider, questioning and sceptical, while being fascinated by Annalise, a girl who does not seem to be quite human. Eventually, he decides to travel from his Yorkshire home to London – just as much the great metropolis as it is in our world, but with the odd pointer to the differences. Hyde Park is an upmarket residential area, the big open space being Westminster Park where the old government buildings used to be, and the South Bank is still undeveloped marshland.

Robert has a colourful young life, rising from the bottom-feeders of society to mixing with the top, but he remains an iconoclast at heart, campaigning for greater equality and hoping to be a part of the end of the present Age and the start of a new one: something that happens about once a century. But the secret about aether which has been increasingly bothering him lies back in his home town, where he finds that nothing is quite as he thought.

The House of Storms is the sequel (published 2005), set in the same world but a century or more later, so does not feature the same characters, although a couple get a brief mention as historical figures. The structure of the book is different, with several viewpoints being used, and the focus is somewhat narrower; less time is spent on establishing the background and the nature of this strange world, so readers are advised to read The Light Ages first.

The initial viewpoint character is Alice Meynell, a beautiful and highly resourceful woman who has married into wealth and power as the Greatgrandmistress of one of the most powerful guilds. At first we see her in a sympathetic light as she travels across Europe with her teenage son Ralph, trying to find a cure for his consumption, but as the story develops we learn more about her dubious background and the ruthlessness with which she achieved and maintains her position. The pair arrive at Invercombe, a grand house on the south-west coast owned by her guild and close to the legendary home for changelings, Einfell. Invercombe seems to have a character of its own, and Ralph soon makes a full recovery, capped by a relationship with Marion Price, a young shoregirl who makes a living through fishing and hunting for seafood. Between them, they study the wildlife and fossils and begin to form conclusions about the evolution of life.

At this point Part 2 of the story abruptly jumps to several years later, with a different setting and characters; notably Klade, a young changeling living at Einfell. As Klade's history is gradually revealed we see how this integrates with the earlier part of the story, some of whose characters re-emerge. We also learn more about the social tensions, not just between the changelings and normal humans, but also between the Easterners focused on London, and the Westerners (centred on Bristol) who are still profiting from the "bonded persons" trade (i.e. slavery); tensions which lead to conflict.

The third part of the book is concerned with the civil war, and the part played in this by the established characters. It becomes clear that the present Age (the Age of Light), in which the use of aether is supplemented by electricity, is drawing to a close; an event which happens with dramatic suddenness. The stories of the main characters are neatly drawn together in a satisfying conclusion.

The quality of writing in these books is superb, the characterisation excellent, the whole flavour of the books powerfully atmospheric. They are slow-paced, but I found myself deliberately slowing down my normal reading speed in order to absorb the descriptions rather than skim over them.  The plots are entirely original and the course of events unpredictable. This is fantasy of the highest standard, and is warmly recommended.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the confusion surrounding exactly what it is, due to the haphazard way it was developed. The author was famously disorganised to the despair of his publishers and programme makers (a quote from him: "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by."). My copy of the book, an omnibus edition by Heinemann, is subtitled A Trilogy in Four Parts, and as well as the title story includes: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe; Life, the Universe and Everything; and So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. These are not long, each story taking 130-150 pages. Most usefully, the omnibus has an introduction by the author (A Guide to the Guide) explaining the sequence of events, briefly summarised as follows:

Adams had always been attracted by the idea of combining science fiction with comedy, but the only person he could find who was prepared to support him was a BBC radio producer, so a radio series was how it started; on BBC Radio 4 in March 1978. This consisted of six episodes, but one more appeared later that year. This generated enough of a response for Pan Books to commission a book version of the series, which emerged in September 1979 and was an instant hit. To quote Adams: "It was a substantially expanded version of the first four episodes of the radio series, in which some of the characters behaved in entirely different ways and others behaved in exactly the same ways but for entirely different reasons, which amounts to the same thing but saves rewriting the dialogue". In case you were wondering, the 1979 book covered only the first four episodes because Adams kept missing deadlines and Pan lost patience… At about the same time, a double record album was released which was an entirely fresh recording, and was a slightly contracted version of the first four episodes. In January 1980 five new episodes of THHGTTG were broadcast, giving a total of twelve. In autumn 1980 the second book was published with the title The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, which was "a very substantially reworked, re-edited and contracted version of episodes 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 5 and 6 (in that order)". At about the same time, a second record album was made featuring a heavily rewritten and expanded version of episodes 5 and 6 of the radio series, under the TRATEOTU title. Meanwhile, a six-episode TV version of THHGTTG was made by the BBC and broadcast in 1981. "It was based, more or less, on the first six episodes of the radio series". So it incorporated most of the book versions of THHGTTG and the second half of TRATEOTU.  "though it followed the basic structure of the radio series, it incorporated revisions from the books, which didn't". In summer 1982 a third novel was published with the title Life, the Universe, and Everything. "This was not based on anything that had already been heard or seen on radio or television. In fact it flatly contradicted episodes 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 of the radio series". Adams then worked on a film screenplay "which was completely inconsistent with most of what had gone on so far" (a film version eventually emerged in 2005, four years after Adams died). Then he wrote a fourth book of the trilogy, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, which was published in 1984 and "effectively contradicted everything to date, up to and including itself". I hope that everything is now absolutely clear…

Wikipedia points out that THHGTTG also spawned several stage plays, comics, and a computer game. Plus the naming of two asteroids: Douglasadams and Arthurdent (after the principal character). My own introduction to this alternate universe was the TV series, which I loved and saw twice, which meant that I judged everything else by it; as a result I wasn't that impressed by the film, although it had its moments. In reading the "trilogy" I realised that I only recognised the first two volumes – I must have bought the omnibus and forgotten to read the others, so I had the pleasure of reading a lot of it for the first time. So to the first volume:

The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy:  The story begins with Arthur Dent, a completely ordinary Englishman, an "everyman" who becomes the focus of the entire series. His friend Ford Prefect turns out to be an alien (an explanation of the joke to non-Brits: the alien had chosen his name on arrival since it appeared to be very common, but he didn't realise it was actually the name of a small and very ordinary British car). Ford warns Arthur that the Earth is about to be destroyed to make way for a hyperspatial express route – which duly happens, but Ford manages to hitch a ride for Arthur and himself on one of the Vogon ships which had carried out the destruction. Here, Arthur is introduced to The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a book-sized machine which contains a vast amount of information of varying reliability which is more or less useful to those travelling around the galaxy; reassuringly, it has DON'T PANIC on the cover. He also has a babelfish inserted into his ear, which carries out the useful task of translating any language into English.

The adventures of Arthur and Ford include hitching another ride on a stolen spaceship in which they meet up with the two-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox and his girlfriend Trillian as well as Marvin the Paranoid Android. They find the long-lost planet Magrathea where new planets are made to order (including the Earth, made to order by Slartibartfast for a specific purpose, for a non-human race). They learn about the vast computer which was created to provide the answer to life, the universe and everything, and after seven million years of thought famously came up with the answer "42" (sorry if that's a spoiler!).

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: In this story, the real reason for the destruction of the Earth is revealed (but only to the reader). After further adventures during which the group are pursued by law enforcement officers over Zaphod's theft of the spaceship, they arrive at Milliways, a unique restaurant which has the ability to transcend time, so its meals are served while it is perched on a piece of rock just when the universe is about to end. It is during this meal that the famous talking cow episode takes place. The group decide to steal another spaceship, not realising that it is designed for one purpose – to crash into a star as part of a performance by Disaster Area, the loudest band in galactic history. Escaping once more, the group is separated, with Arthur and Ford finding themselves trapped on a huge spaceship which is conveying millions of carefully selected people (although with unusual selection criteria) to another world, where it crash-lands.

Life, the Universe, and Everything: At the start of this story, Arthur and Ford have been trapped for years on the world they crash-landed, but with the aid of a Chesterfield sofa and an eddy in space-time they are able to return to something like normality, only to encounter the existential threat of the Masters of Krikkit and their deadly robots. They eventually rejoin Slartibartfast (and later, Zaphod, Trillian and Marvin), and Arthur learns to defy gravity, while first Marvin and then Arthur both end up saving the Universe in unexpected ways.

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish: Arthur returns to the Earth by himself, after discovering that it hadn't been destroyed after all (or, if it had, it had been replaced by an identical copy complete with identical people). Here, at last, he meets the girl of his dreams and together they discover God's Final Message to His Creation.

Adams had a peculiarly British sense of humour which doesn't necessarily travel well, but anyone who appreciates Monty Python will love Adams. These stories are packed with comic incidents and anecdotes from Adams' free-wheeling imagination and there is nothing else quite like them in SFF (although as I was recently reminded, Robert Sheckley's style is worth comparing). I thoroughly enjoyed reacquainting myself with Adams' work, and discovering the two later volumes was an unexpected treat.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

TV – The City and the City

China Miéville's novel The City and the City currently gets my vote as the best SFF novel published this century. It is that rare and precious thing, a very well-written story with a totally original and fascinating plot (my review was published on this blog in March 2012). So I was both delighted that BBC TV decided to make a four-hour adaptation of it, and worried that they might mess it up. The fact that the author is named as a consultant in the TV credits was at least a promising sign. The serial was shown on BBC2 over four weeks in April this year, but I waited until I had recorded all of the episodes before watching them over two consecutive evenings. And I waited before writing this review until I had read the book again, so I could make a direct comparison.

This review will necessarily contain quite a lot of spoilers (although not the solution to the mystery at its heart) so if you don't want those, I'll just say that although the screen version differs quite significantly from the book in some respects, it remains true to the overall plot and powerful atmosphere of the written story. It is a commendable effort, and well worth seeing.

First the background to the story (valid for both book and screen), adapted from my previous review of the book:

The City and the City is set in the present day in an imaginary country (East European or Middle Eastern – the geography is somewhat vague), consisting mainly of one large city. It is a murder mystery, featuring and told by Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad of the city of Besźel. So far, so mundane - but this is no ordinary city. What is peculiar about the city, as the reader soon begins to realise, is that for reasons lost in history it is two organisationally, culturally and linguistically very different cities occupying the same physical fabric. They even have different names: Besźel and Ul Qoma. This doesn't mean the city is carved into sectors like Berlin during the Cold War; while some parts are purely Besźel and others Ul Qoma, these sections are scattered at random throughout the city and the remainder is mixed, with Besźel and Ul Qoma buildings intermingled. Stranger still, the inhabitants of each city are conditioned from childhood only to see the buildings and people of their own city. They can recognise the differences easily enough; the buildings are of different architectural styles and the people dress differently and have different gestures and body language, as well as speaking different languages. It is absolutely forbidden to interact with, acknowledge or even look directly at people or buildings in the "other" city (a crime known as "breach") and the inhabitants learn to "unsee" the other city, ignoring anyone or anything which is not theirs. This draconian rule is enforced by a shadowy and much feared organisation simply called "Breach"; enforcement officers who dress and behave in such a way that they are "unseen" by the inhabitants of both cities, until they suddenly emerge to carry off anyone guilty of breach. The two cities interact in only one place, Copula Hall, which is also the "virtual border" between them. Inhabitants of either city can obtain permission to visit the other, but they have to be trained first to "see" the city they are visiting; which means that for the duration of the visit, they "unsee" their own city.

This bizarre situation can make the life of a police officer like Borlú very complicated, so when a visiting American student, working on an archaeological dig in Ul Qoma, turns up murdered in Besźel, he knows he's in for trouble. Working with his Ul Qoman opposite number he tries to get to the bottom of a complex and murky case, complicated by the apparent involvement of Orciny, a legendary third city "unseen" by the other two, and with the threat of Breach constantly hanging over him.

Now you'd definitely better stop reading if you don't want the spoilers…

The most obvious difference between book and screen is that the screen Borlú (played by David Morrissey) is far more emotionally involved in the mystery, because his wife Katrynia (Lara Pulver), who was also fascinated by the Orciny legend which obsessed the murdered girl, disappeared several years before while researching it. She remains very much in his thoughts and we see her constantly in flashbacks and in his imagination. In the book, she does not exist at all – the only reference to Borlú's personal life being mention of a couple of women whom he sees occasionally, but who have no part in the story.

This difference carries through into Borlú's attitude to the case: in the book, he wants to pass it to Breach to deal with as they have far better resources to solve the crime, but on screen he is desperate to hang onto the case, hoping it might enable him to find out what happened to his wife. This leads to some odd touches, such as a traffic camera video which emerges to demonstrate that a vehicle carrying the girl's body passed legally between Besźel and Ul Qoma, so Breach would not be involved. Borlú receives this with dismay in the book, delight on screen. Similarly, he is reluctant to travel to Ul Qoma in the book, keen to do so on screen.

There are some other incidental differences in the detail: the focus of the mystery, the archaeological dig (Bol Ye'an in Ul Qoma, which dates back to before the two separate cities emerged), is a conventional open-air investigation in the book, a cavern with walls dramatically covered by undeciphered Dan Brown-like diagrams on screen. The Ul Qoma detective Borlú works with is a man in the book, a woman on screen. The young female cop (Corwi) who works for Borlú has a dual role on screen. David Bowden, the academic whose book "Between the City and the City" started the whole Orciny legend, is an elderly man in the book, a younger womaniser on screen. A final odd detail which caught my eye: in the book Borlú does not smoke, the only reference being that he used to, but was determined not to start again; on screen, he chain-smokes cigars. Despite these differences, the screen plot generally follows the book quite closely – occasionally, snatches of conversation are word-for-word the same. The dark and brooding atmosphere is emphasised on screen by the music, especially the theme tune.

Some neologisms crop up in the book but not on screen: "grosstopically" referring to actual physical relationships between buildings in Besźel and Ul Qoma, as opposed to the legal routes via Copula Hall which need to be taken to travel between them; "topolgangers" meaning the two aspects of the same street in areas shared between Besźel and Ul Qoma.

Some more general points: the screen emphasises the differences between Besźel and Ul Qoma more dramatically than the book can. The cities have different economic cycles, and at this time Besźel is a much poorer place, drab and tatty with crumbling infrastructure and old-fashioned brick-like phones, while Ul Qoma is in the middle of an economic boom with glass skyscrapers and smartphones (comparisons between East and West Germany pre-unification give the general idea, although in the book Ul Qoma is one-party police state). In the book there is the odd reference to make it clear that the rest of world is much as it is now: Ul Qoma's new airport terminal being designed by British architect Norman Foster; mention of a song previously popular in Germany, 99 Luftballons (which was also a hit in the UK in the 1980s, as 99 Red Balloons, by Nena); and, most convincingly, mention of Marmite!

I did wonder how the screen would cope with the whole "unseeing" idea, but for the most part it proves straightforward, with the things which Borlú is not supposed to see being blurred out. The one exception is Breach, which in the book have almost supernatural powers, being "unseen" by citizens of both cities (citizens in Besźel assume they are in Ul Qoma, and vice versa) until they choose to "manifest", altering their behaviour to make themselves visible – from seeming blurred to onlookers, they suddenly jump into focus. Although this could have been shown easily enough on screen, this does not happen: Breach agents are visible all of the time but just appear to be ordinary people until they declare themselves. As a result, they appear far less mysterious and formidable, which is disappointing.

So, how do the two versions compare? The screen is more dramatic as might be expected, with more action scenes, as well as being emotionally more fraught. Overall, those involved with the screen version made a good job of it, and I am keeping the recordings to see again sometime (I'll probably read the book first, next time). However, I do prefer the book – it provides a richer experience, allowing a deeper immersion into the strange world of the cities.

I have a rule of thumb that the success of a screen adaptation of a book is closely linked to the running time versus the reading time for the book: if the book takes 5+ hours for me to read (as this one does) then for an optimum adaptation the screen version should run for a similar length of time. The shorter the running time relative to the reading time, the more has to be chopped from the story or rushed through, and the less satisfactory it becomes (the 1984 film version of Dune being a disastrous example, at 2¼ hours to cover a 7+ hour book). Conversely, in those very rare cases when the running time is significantly greater than the reading time (certainly The Hobbit, probably Game of Thrones but I haven't read that) there tends to be a loss of focus and a lot of meandering side-plots. So by that criterion the screen version of The City and the City could have done with just a bit more time. Having said that, I would have liked the book to be longer too!

The Radio Times website contains an interesting article on the serial, here: