Sunday, 29 August 2010

Films: Solaris (2002), Spiderman (2002) and Evolution (2001)

I have only a dim recollection of reading Solaris by Stanislaw Lem decades ago and have never seen the 1972 Russian film, so watched the 2002 film without preconceptions.

Psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) answers a call for help from an old friend, Gibarian, currently based on a space station studying the planet Solaris. On arrival, Kelvin discovers that Gibarian has committed suicide and two surviving scientists are the only people on board. However, he catches a glimpse of a young boy who appears to be Gibarian's son and then meets a reincarnation of his own wife, Rheya (a compelling performance by Natascha McElhone) who had previously died on Earth. He realises that a powerful intelligence on the planet was examining the thoughts and dreams of the humans and bringing to life that which they most yearned for or felt guilty about. Eventually, he is left with a series of difficult choices.

The film focuses on the relationship between Kelvin and Rheya - or rather the version of Rheya created from his memories - and is a strong on atmosphere and psychology. Those who expect an SF film to be packed with action and special effects will be very disappointed with Solaris. Furthermore, I gather from the Wiki summary that Lem wasn't much impressed with either film (the 2002 version being quite similar in theme to the 1972 one), as his focus was not on the relationships between the couple but rather on the sheer alienness of the intelligence on the planet and the impossibility of achieving any meaningful communication with it. However, I was gripped by the film from start to finish and really enjoyed it. One of the better SF films I've seen.
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In complete contrast was the first of the current Spiderman series, featuring Tobey Maguire. While this has its darker moments, it lacks the grim, adult feel of the most recent Batman films. However, it makes for painless and undemanding entertainment - if you can swallow the preposterous proposition that someone infected by the bite of a genetically-modified spider can acquire superpowers. The transformation of a weakling nerd student into a powerful hero has huge adolescent wish-fulfilment appeal, while the moral message that "with great power comes great responsibility" is hammered home in word and deed. A worthy effort, with some spectacular swooping flights over the cityscape.
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Evolution is yet another contrast, being a cheerful comedy. It follows the fortunes of a disgraced scientist (played by David Duchovny) who discovers alien life on a meteorite; life which proceeds to evolve at a phenomenal rate, from single-celled to large animals in a matter of weeks. It becomes clear that the future of humanity is at risk, and it is down to the hero and his sidekicks to prevent catastrophe. It rather reminded me of the brilliant Tremors (1990) and, while not quite up to that, is nonetheless a good popcorn movie.
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The next post on this blog will be in a couple of weeks.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Hothouse by Brian Aldiss

Brian Aldiss was one of the "New Wave" of British SF authors in the 1960s, signalling a break from traditional SF themes towards more experimental fiction. Aldiss himself alternated between mainstream and genre fiction and is regarded as a "literary" author, with a high critical reputation. Hothouse (initially published in the USA in abridged form as The Long Afternoon of Earth) is an early and more conventional work, fitting within the SFF mainstream. Despite being described as SF, this story is more of a fantasy in my view, as I will explain.

The setting is the very far future, close to the end of the Sun's life, when Earth has settled into an orbit which keeps one side turned permanently to the Sun, and the Moon has become a twin planet, also remaining in the same place relative to the Earth and now supporting life. The habitable part of the Earth is entirely covered by one vast, interconnected banyan tree, and inhabited by various (and usually ferocious) vegetables and insects. Humans - in a considerably shrunken form - are almost the only animals left, and exist in small groups at pre-stone age survival level in the middle layers of the forest, constantly threatened by predators.

I should warn you that the rest of this review contains spoilers, as it's difficult to comment on the story without them, so I will just sum this up as an interesting period piece, highly regarded when it first appeared, but not standing up too well today.

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The protagonist is Gren, a rebellious near-mature male child in a society run by women. He and the other children are abandoned by the adults of their group who head off into the sky in a strange ritual, eventually arriving (much changed) on the Moon.

Gren and the other children are almost immediately in one set of trouble after another, and Gren's disruptive behaviour eventually causes him to be exiled. He falls prey to a morel, an intelligent fungus which invades and takes over his nervous system and is able to ransack his race memories to learn the history of humanity. With the morel's somewhat unreliable guidance Gren is able to survive, meeting various people and weird life forms and experiencing one adventure after another. He meets Sodal Ye, an intelligent dolphin who is aware of the history of the world and of its imminent destruction as the Sun goes nova. Finally, the transformed adults of Gren's group return from the Moon, and Gren is faced with a choice of futures.

I said at the start that I regarded this story as a fantasy despite an attempt by the author to establish it as set in a possible future. This is because some of the aspects of it - especially the space-travelling traversers and the bizarre tummy-belly men - are just too fantastic to be credible, at least as far as I'm concerned. Which does, of course, open the door to the age-old debate about where the boundaries between the two genres lie, but I'll save that for another time.

I enjoyed this re-read rather less than I expected. Partly this is because the principal character is so unsympathetic - the kind of brash and self-centred youth I would dislike in real life - partly because the procession of one fantastic creature after another becomes a bit wearing. The story reads as if the author was packing in as many bizarre ideas as he could, just for the sake of it.

I was also not entirely comfortable with one aspect of the writing; the narrator, who kept throwing in additional pieces of information to explain the background. Some of it made no sense: for example, the entertainingly-named killerwillow, bellyelm and sand octopus, which only lived in Nomansland where no human ever went - so how did they acquire such names, if no-one knew they existed?

A few more general comments:

There are various possible ways of making the reader understand unusual settings. One (popular these days) is to explain nothing, leaving the reader to piece together what the story is all about from scraps of information scattered through it, and possibly even remain a bit puzzled at the end. A second is to build in occasional infodumps in the form of the notorious "As you know, Bob" type of conversations; however, this isn't possible in a story like Hothouse, in which none of the characters understands the background until the morel and Sodal Ye appear. Another might be for the characters to stumble upon some ancient document which explains it all (also not applicable to Hothouse, where no-one can read). Or there could be a prologue which gives a summary of the back-history, but that could spoil the surprise element. A further approach is explicitly to establish the narrator as being in the future, looking back and describing what happened; a variation on this is to supplement the narrator's role with extracts from a history written in some future time, inserted before the start of each chapter (a technique used effectively by Frank Herbert in Dune); but again, neither is applicable to Hothouse, where there is no prospect of any future historian.

As a general rule I prefer the narrator to be unobtrusive, simply describing what is happening and what the main viewpoint character is thinking. Aldiss' approach left me uncertain about who the narrator was meant to be; seemingly, some all-knowing commentator rather than an observer of current events. On balance, I would have preferred a brief prologue for this novel, probably only a paragraph, explaining about the changes in the orbital behaviour of the Earth and the Moon and their consequences for life, because these are explained by the narrator early on anyway. The rest of the explanations could have been handled by the morel and Sodal Ye.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Grass by Sheri S. Tepper

Sheri Tepper is an author to give hope to all aspiring writers of mature years, because her first published novel didn't appear until she was in her mid-fifties. However, she hit the ground running and has since authored some thirty SFF novels under her own name plus more than a dozen thrillers under pseudonyms, not to mention shorter works. Nine of her novels have been nominated for awards, one of them (Beauty) winning the Locus Award in 1992. She has become associated with ecological and feminist themes, although this is only obvious in some of her work. She wins my award as the author of my favourite contemporary fantasy series, The Marianne Trilogy (reviewed on this blog on 4 July 2007), a unique and surreal vision of parallel fantastical worlds.

Grass is the first of her Arbai trilogy (somehow I've missed the other two and must get hold of them) and I first read it when it was published in the 1980s. I remember being very impressed at the time, but since I had forgotten the plot I was able to enjoy it all over again.

The story displays her ability to create strange but compelling worlds. It is set in a distant future in which humanity has spread across a large number of star systems, so far finding no signs of other intelligent life except the widespread ruins of the Arbai civilisation, created by an extinct race of humanoid reptiles. The controlling force across human civilisation is a religion, Sanctity, whose unique selling point is to collect genetic data from its followers ready for machines to restore them to a purer life after the expected death of humanity. At the start of the story this appears to be imminent as humanity is suffering a deadly and incurable plague, to which the inhabitants of only one of the settled planets seem to be immune; the world of Grass.

Grass is unique for several reasons. The first is what gave the planet its name; the land surface is almost entirely covered by grasses, in a vast range of different types varying greatly in colour and size depending on the soils and microclimate. The only exceptions are marshy areas, where giant trees grow. Another is that the controlling settlers, a group of aristocrats, have divided the land into vast estancias and forbidden any settlement other than their own mansions and the villages of their servants, with the principal exception of the Commons, a hundred-square-mile upland area cut off from the grasslands by marshy forest. In this crowded space is the interstellar port and all commercial and scientific activities, a culture quite separate from that of the aristocrats. Elsewhere there is also a small settlement of recalcitrant monks despatched to the planet as a punishment, who spend their time excavating the most complete Arbai city ever found.

The story is first seen through the eyes of the aristocrats, collectively called the "bons" because of their practice of indicating their aristocracy by adding this to their names, as in Rowena bon Damfels. They are obsessed with hunting and do little else during the hunting season, which takes place during the summer; winters are so harsh that they are spent in underground warrens. The hunting style is modelled after the ancient British sport of fox hunting, with the hunters on mounts and accompanied by hounds as they ride in pursuit of their prey, which are even known as "foxen". However, their mounts - Hippae - are not horses, their hounds are not dogs and the foxen are not remotely like foxes, and there is something very strange about the entire custom.

Into this world comes the Yrarier family, Rodrigo together with his long-suffering wife Marjorie and reluctant teenage children, covertly sent by Sanctity to discover why the inhabitants seem to be immune to the plague. They have great difficulty in being accepted by the suspicious and xenophobic bons, and find that they need to participate in the hunting to be taken seriously; but this hunting is, literally, like nothing on Earth. Another plot thread concerns some of the monks on Grass, who are making interesting discoveries about the Arbai and why they died out. The various threads are gradually woven together into the climatic conclusion, in which the true nature and history of the native Hippae, hounds and foxen are central.

The author is a great story-teller and has a marvellous ability to take the reader inside the worlds of her imagination. The culture of the bons, the rope-climbing sub-culture of the younger monks (which reminded me of Peake's Gormenghast), and the intense internal struggles within the Yrarier family, are all memorable.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Un Lun Dun by China Miéville

China Miéville is a highly regarded new British SFF author but I'd never read any of his work, so I decided to pick up a copy of Un Lun Dun, which has received good reviews. I was initially somewhat disconcerted to read in the introduction that it was his first novel for "younger readers"; something I hadn't been aware of when I bought it. However, I am aware that this category includes some of the best fiction past and present, so after a few mental and physical warm-up exercises (the book has over 500 pages) I got stuck in.

The location is London, the time is the present, the focus on a pair of schoolgirl friends to whom unusual things seem to be happening. There are signs and portents that one of them - Zanna - is the subject of intense interest not just from strangers but from animals too. Together with her friend, the reluctant Deeba, she follows her instincts and the pair find themselves in a strange, distorted and magical version of the city: Un Lun Dun. It is filled with all of the rubbish which has been discarded by London, with houses built of old washing machines or gramophone records, and populated by an extraordinary mixture of fantastic individuals including ghosts and ferocious carnivorous giraffes. Red double-decker buses drift across the sky supported by balloons, while the London Eye (the UnLondon-I) is a giant water-wheel generating electricity.

This fantastical world is under threat - from the deadly Smog, which has grown so thick that it has developed a malign intelligence and aims to take over all of Un Lun Dun. Zanna turns out to be the Chosen One, long prophesied in a revered and rather talkative Book to be the agent of the Smog's destruction. She collects a disparate group of allies and begins to fulfil the prophecies.

So far, just a different take on a predictable plot. But the story doesn't stay predictable for long, with twist after twist throughout the novel, right to the end. To say any more would spoil the surprises, but suffice it to say that I read the book in only three sessions and finished with a smile on my face. It has likeable heroes and is packed full of original ideas; I particularly enjoyed the UnGun!

Stories like this make a stark contrast with most modern fantasy, which has become very derivative if not hackneyed. I will be reading more from this author.