Friday 25 September 2009

Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell

Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the very few SFF novels to have made the leap not just to mainstream acceptability but to being regarded as literature. This was probably because George Orwell was not really a genre writer, he was primarily interested in using fiction, sometimes including fantastic situations, to reflect and satirise what he saw as trends in society. This is most obvious in his novel Animal Farm, which used animals to show humans in a comically unflattering light. 1984 does the same thing, but without the comedy; it is a much more polemical and bitter novel.

It is a very long time since I last read this book and I had forgotten almost everything about it except for its general theme, so I was pleased when it was selected for the Classic Science Fiction discussion group.

1984 is a dreadful warning of what the world might become if the tendency towards all-powerful controlling dictatorships, as exemplified in primitive form by Nazi Germany and much more so by Stalin's USSR, were developed to its logical conclusion. The story is set thirty-five years after the novel was first published in 1949; since then we could add Mao's China, Hoxha's Albania, Pol Pot's Cambodia and North Korea to the list of comparators. In Orwell's novel, the world has become divided into three huge power blocks; Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. They are, allegedly, in a state of constant warfare with alliances changing every few years. The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a humble member of the ruling (and only) political party of Oceania, whose inspirational figurehead is "Big Brother". Not only does Big Brother's face look down from posters everywhere under the famous slogan "Big Brother is watching you" but he, or rather his minions in The Party's Thought Police, are indeed watching every Party member via two-way telescreens in every home and workplace.

The Party brooks not the slightest dissent from its members; any expressions of disloyalty, even insufficiently reverential expressions when Big Brother was mentioned, could be enough for the Thought Police to come calling in the middle of the night. Those so removed were hardly ever seen or heard from again, except when confessing to a long list of crimes before their inevitable execution. Not only that, but their existence was expunged from the records; Winston Smith's endless job involves rewriting old newspaper reports to remove any mention of such people. He also rewrites official proclamations when these have been proved to be wrong, most obviously when Oceania switches allies from Eastasia to Eurasia; The Party line is that whichever of these is the enemy has always been the enemy, and all books and other records must reflect that.

Complete control of the news and of history, constant monitoring of Party members and ruthless crushing of dissent combine to provide The Party with absolute power and control. This is reinforced by the constant effort to rewrite the language into "Newspeak"; a greatly simplified and abbreviated version of English designed to make it impossible to think subversive thoughts, since the language of subversion will no longer be available. All words describing any thoughts and concepts forbidden by The Party are replaced by one: "thoughtcrime".

At the time of the novel, the restructuring of the language has not been completed and traditional English is still in common use, Newspeak being mainly for official purposes. Winston Smith becomes increasingly disillusioned with his work and his life and harbours rebellious thoughts. He forms a forbidden liaison with a young woman, Julia, and together they go in search of the Brotherhood, which is supposedly a secret organisation devoted to the overthrow of The Party. This is no Hollywood film plot, however, and there is no happy ending.

1984 can be considered in two ways: as an SF novel, and as a warning of what the future might hold. As a novel, it is a mixed bag. Winston Smith's journey towards outright rebellion and its consequences is grimly compelling. However, the author is too concerned to get his message across, to extent that he beats the reader over the head with a very long extract from a forbidden book supposedly written by a critic of The Party. The polemic casts a heavy shadow over the story.

Clearly, the world did not develop as Orwell outlined, and North Korea is the only country which currently resembles Oceania. However, there are occasional reflections of his concerns in our societies today. Politicians are notorious for being economical with the truth, trying to present failure as success, claimed the credit for accidental good fortune and rewriting history if they get the chance. Government surveillance of its citizens has never been greater, with CCTV systems proliferating and the large-scale monitoring of electronic correspondence.

Taking everything into consideration, 1984 is justifiably famous and is one of the few books that everyone (not just SF fans) should read to complete their education. Its portrayal of what could happen stands as a warning to us, and to future generations.

Friday 18 September 2009

Old Man's War by John Scalzi, and Surface

The time is the far future, when humanity has spread to many star systems but finds itself in constant conflict with the scores of alien races who are competing for habitable planets. The Colonial Defence Forces (CDF) wage war on humanity's behalf, and have developed into a powerful organisation. They constantly recruit from Earth, but take only old people facing death who have nothing to lose; they have to declare their intention to join at age 65, and finally join up when they are ten years older. These elderly recruits don't know what to expect as no-one ever returns from the CDF; they are officially declared dead when they join.

Old Man's War is the first-person account of one such recruit, John Perry. It describes the transformation which turns him into an efficient fighting machine, his training, the friends he makes and what happens to all of them as they face the appalling death rates of combat against a varied selection of aliens.

If this plot sounds rather familiar, it is: there are strong echoes of Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Haldeman's The Forever War (both reviewed earlier this year on this blog – see the links in the review list on the left). Scalzi's book is more enjoyable and entertaining than either and I read it in two sessions, but it suffers from a lack of originality – it is too obviously derivative.

I also had a few problems with the plot. The first ones won't mean much to you unless you've read the book: if the Ghost Brigades were so superior, why withhold their advanced capabilities from the ordinary soldiers? In fact, why bother with the ordinary soldiers at all? The other issue is a more fundamental one: nations are already developing unmanned combat planes and vehicles which have a combination of self-guidance and remote control. It is hard to imagine that in a future of advanced technology, such robotic fighting machines will not be far more efficient than sending live soldiers down to fight, however enhanced they may be.

To sum up, it's the kind of book which is fun to read but not particularly memorable. I read it because it was on the reading list for the Modern Science Fiction discussion group. There are sequels which I may read someday, but they would be way down my priority list.

I thought I'd give this US TV adventure series, now being shown on UK TV, a spin to see how it went. The start is not that unusual – mysterious events at sea, with blurred or fragmentary sightings of sea monsters, ranging from small newly-hatched ones to giant leviathans. They appear to be emerging from caverns deep under the ocean floor.

The suspense is well maintained in the first episode, as a varied group of people (some of whom seem to have some idea of what's happening) try to keep up with developments. It is less hysterical (and bloody) than many such stories, and the writers evidently made use of the considerable length (fifteen episodes) to develop the plot slowly while establishing the characters. In the next couple of episodes it seemed to be settling down into a fairly routine cover-up conspiracy plot, and sadly became less and less credible. I can suspend disbelief sufficiently to accept monsters emerging from the deep, but ones which can live in magma? At that point I stopped watching.
I have posted my review of Where is Everybody? Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox on my website for easy reference, HERE.

Saturday 12 September 2009

Movie Time

Three recent SFF movies I've seen:

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

I enjoyed the first of the 'Mummy' films as a kind of entertaining low-rent version of an Indiana Jones movie, so saw the sequel (which wasn't as good) and recently watched the third – unfortunately. Rachel Weiss no longer features (a shame, she shone in the first two) and I found the plot very derivative, the action rather tedious and repetitive, the dialogue corny and most of the acting clunky. The CGI was good but this is expected nowadays. The main reason to watch it is Michelle Yeoh, who is always worth seeing and is the class act of the film. I see that most critics rated it as being on a par with the other films so perhaps I was just in a critical mood, or I've just got tired of the formula.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

This is the latest in the series of adaptations of J K Rowling's books. I can't comment on how it compares with the book because I haven't read it, or indeed any of them except for the first. I have, however, seen all of the films. That's just as well, because I suspect that anyone who sees this film without knowing the backstory would have no idea what was going on. It's just an episode in a continuous tale, with nothing from the earlier films explained and an abrupt ending leaving nothing resolved.

There are only two major plot developments in the film (I won't spoil the surprise by revealing them). The rest of the story focuses on the relationships between the students, who have now reached an age when the opposite sex begins to obsess them. The problem is that this really doesn't work that well. Harry is supposed to be in love with Ginny but we would never guess if we weren't told – there is not a spark of chemistry between them – and the idea that the brilliant (and now very attractive) Hermione could be passionate about the plodding Ron Weasley lacks any credibility; not even Emma Watson's superior acting skills could make that believable.

The film maker's task of doing justice to the books is evidently becoming steadily more difficult as the book length increases with each novel. Really, they can't win; miss out any significant characters or events and there will be howls of protest from the fans, but try to include everything and the result is lots of brief and unexplained snippets. As a result, some characters who are obviously of significance in the books briefly pop in and out of the films with little or no explanation, Remus Lupin being one of them. Harry is repeatedly referred to as "the chosen one" but displays no special talents compared with the other young wizards. Even the title of the book is unexplained; we find out at the end who the "half-blood prince" is, but no indication of why he has that title or what the significance might be. I see that the film of the final book will be split into two parts, so evidently the film-makers have admitted defeat!

Despite these criticisms this is a reasonably entertaining film, but it is perhaps the least successful of the series in dramatic terms.

District 9

A new SF film set in the near future (currently on limited release in the UK), concerning what happens when a vast alien spaceship arrives on Earth, finally coming to rest in the sky a few thousand feet above Johannesburg in South Africa. Nothing happens for three months, after which humans decide to cut their way in. To their astonishment, they find a million starving, helpless aliens, who bear a close resemblance to human-sized crustaceans and are promptly dubbed "Prawns". The Prawns are evacuated from the ship and moved into a camp beneath it, in a zone which soon becomes a huge shanty-town called "District 9". Humans and Prawns are unable to speak each other's languages (the impressively alien-sounding Prawn speech could never come from a human throat) but do learn to understand each other.

The action in the film takes place twenty years later, when the Prawn population has nearly doubled. The Prawns live sordid lives at a basic subsistence level, with no indication of understanding the sophisticated technology of their spacecraft and weapon systems; these are useless to humans as they can only be operated by those with Prawn DNA. District 9 is officially looked after by an organisation called "Multinational United" (MNU), effectively a private security firm, but is unofficially controlled by Nigerian gangsters who exploit the Prawns.

Increasing resentment from the local human population has prompted a plan to relocate the Prawn community to a secure zone in a remote area of the country. MNU is given the task under the leadership of Wikus van de Merwe; a well-meaning but ineffectual administrator who happens to be the son-in-law of the director of MNU. What happens is told partly in flash-back by commentators apparently appearing in a TV documentary, but mostly in real time.

The relocation attempt is met by resistance, brutally handled by the military wing of the MNU over the protests of Wikus. As a result of a bizarre accident, Wikus absorbs alien DNA and begins to acquire Prawn characteristics. He instantly becomes an extremely valuable possession since he can now operate Prawn weapons, and he finds himself on the run from both his former employers and the gangsters. One of the Prawns, called Christopher (they have all been given human names), is gradually revealed to know far more about their technology than any Prawn has admitted, and he and Wikus end up fighting for survival together.

It is no accident that the film was set (and made) in South Africa; it is based on historical events during the apartheid era and the parallels are obvious. The plot is intelligent and gripping, the ending well-handled with a convincing blend of success and rather touching failure, plus room for a possible sequel. Definitely well worth watching. Be warned though, some scenes are gruesome enough to belong to a horror movie and are not for the squeamish, although judging by admiring comments from younger members of the audience I suspect that I am less inured to such scenes than most modern cinema-goers.

A footnote for weapon geeks like me: the film makers were evidently able to raid the stock of the giant South African armaments firm Denel. The MNU's standard rifle was the Vektor CR-21 assault rifle, a bullpup version of the Kalashnikov in a futuristic-looking synthetic stock, which has in reality not entered service. A couple of other weapons shown in use were the formidable Mechem NTW-20 high-velocity 20mm anti-materiel rifle, and one gun I have a soft spot for, the Neopup PAW-20, a low-velocity semi-automatic 20mm rifle. The PAW-20 has also yet to enter service (although it was on display at DSEi this week), but this is (at least) its second outing in fiction, following on from its inclusion in my own SF novel, Scales. There is another parallel with my novel in that my hero also changes dramatically as a result of absorbing alien DNA, although the rest of the story is entirely different. You can read my article on the PAW-20 HERE, and read reviews plus download Scales for free HERE.

Friday 4 September 2009

On Immortality

The concept of human immortality has always had huge appeal. Somehow, we never seem to accept the fact that it is necessary for us to die. This is perhaps most marked in our modern society, in which medical science has done so much to counter the causes of premature death. As a result, death has become something of a taboo subject, which most people are reluctant to face up to. This is well illustrated in the UK by the current confusion and controversy over the "right to die" of the terminally ill.

Lacking the ability to prolong physical life, some people have sought immortality symbolically, in making their mark on history through building territorial or business empires or producing works of art, literature or architecture. Most people probably see their children as providing some stake in the future, some continuity of their genes if not themselves. But it's immortality of the physical self which is seen as the holy grail; as Woody Allen put it:

I don't want to achieve immortality through my work... I want to achieve it through not dying.

Medical science is doing its best to oblige, with vast sums being spent on research into the causes of ageing; there's an entire scientific community devoted to finding ways to prolong life. Few people seem to question whether this is a sensible activity, although there are plenty of warnings in SF about the consequences should they succeed. The world's population is currently around 6.4 billion and is rising steadily; projections of future growth take the total to around 9 billion by the middle of this century, at which point the estimates more or less level off, with the population in the 22nd century being within the 8 to 10 billion band. In comparison, estimates of the maximum supportable population of this planet, taking into account all of the natural resources available and assuming a minimum standard of living (adequate food, housing, fresh water etc), put the sustainable capacity as between 2 and 4 billion. This is without taking into account the possible long-term consequences of climate change, which on current projections seem likely to reduce the area of productive agricultural land due to a combination of continental drought and the flooding of coastal areas. This is not a favourable scenario in which to come up with a method of prolonging individual life.

However, let us assume for the sake of argument that these problems are overcome in some way and we end up with a sustainable population. This doesn't remove the difficulties cause by a major extension of life expectancy. If the population is to remain sustainable it needs to be constant – which means that babies can be born only at the rate at which people die. The more successful medical science is in preventing ageing, the fewer children can be born. There will be an awful lot of frustrated parents out there. The whole shape of society would change, with children becoming a rare and precious commodity. Perhaps as a result the anti-ageing treatments would be reserved for the fortunate few – the rich, or those in political power – which would create a different set of tensions.

Even for those who might benefit from an indefinitely extended life, the consequences are not all rosy. For a start, the concept of retirement would disappear – most people would have to work for as long as they lived. Current pension arrangements are failing to keep up with the gradual increase in lifespan as it is; they would collapse completely if this were extended significantly, let alone indefinitely. People would only be able to retire if they accumulated so many savings that, when invested, they earned enough interest to keep up with inflation plus provide a liveable income on top. If future economies are anything like those of our current society, only a small percentage of the population would be likely to achieve that, and it would take most of them a very long time.

Clearly, indefinite life would have major implications for employment. Not only would the new immortals be faced with an eternity of work; they would become "job blockers", preventing younger people from gaining promotions or even from obtaining jobs at all. Sheer tedium seems likely to become the normal state of living.

When people discuss the benefits of extended life, they often talk enthusiastically about how they would at last have the time to learn skills they've always wanted to have: playing a musical instrument, learning a foreign language or becoming an artist. Frankly, I believe this is wishful thinking. Our lives are already long enough for people to do all of those things if they really want to. If they don't, it's because they're not sufficiently interested to put in the effort required, and that's not likely to change with a longer life. In fact, such abilities are best learned young, while the brain is still flexible enough to pick up new skills easily. For instance, if you want to learn to speak a foreign language without an accent, you normally have to do it before the age of twelve. As we get older and our personalities develop, out brains gradually get used to running in certain ruts; opinions become formed, skill-sets determined, creativity tends to diminish. As the saying goes, "you can't teach an old dog new tricks".

This particular consequence of ageing has been the subject of many epigrams. Here's a couple I like:

I used to dread getting older because I thought I would not be able to do all the things I wanted to do, but now that I am older I find out I don't want to do them. (Nancy Astor)

You can judge your age by the amount of pain you feel when you come in contact with a new idea. (Pearl S. Buck)

This mental fossilisation was well imagined in Larry Niven's short story "The Ethics of Madness", in which a man who has received immortality treatment is pursued in his spaceship for centuries by an automated weapon:

He was totally a man of habits now. He had not had an original thought in centuries. The ship's clock governed his life in every detail, taking him to the autodoc or the kitchen or the gym or the steam room or the bedroom or the bathroom. You'd have thought that he was an ancient robot following a circular tape, no longer able to respond to outside stimuli.

A way of avoiding the practical problems of physical immortality is to achieve a form of virtual survival. One version of this remains a strong selling point of religions; they have adopted the concept of the "soul" (or similar) which can survive after death. Even better, they try to tie their followers to them by promising a wonderful afterlife only to those who obey their laws (and therefore their religious leaders). This has proved compellingly attractive (for the religious leaders as well as their followers). The fact that there are many religions competing for customers, all offering different versions of religious law and blissful afterlife (of which only one, at the most, could be valid), doesn't seem to dampen enthusiasm.

More recently, futurologists and SF authors have explored the possibility of a different form of virtual survival – by having one's personality uploaded into a computer. This would be no simple matter as the human brain is vastly more complex than any computer yet devised or on the horizon, but let's assume that it becomes possible to create such a computer and to find a way of exactly duplicating all of the neural connections and electrochemical conditions which make up an individual's personality. What would result? Only a copy of ourselves, a kind of twin sibling, whose personality would immediately begin to diverge from our own. For ourselves to be "uploaded" would require the identification of a unique and fundamental aspect of our mind which was our true self, separate from the brain and capable of being transferred from one brain to another but not capable of being copied (otherwise it wouldn't be unique). In other words, a "soul". There is no evidence that this exists, and this notion puts such virtual immortality into the same camp as religious afterlife.

However, let's assume that such a personality transfer is possible. What would it be like? The idea of living a virtual life for ever has a certain appeal (especially if one is coming to the end of one's physical life) but all would not necessarily be rosy. Apart from concerns about the consequences of software bugs and viruses, what would it be like to be divorced from physical reality, to know that you didn't actually exist outside of an electronic box? I suspect that there would be a strong tendency for people cut loose from their roots, from their lifelong perspective of who they were, from any concept of purpose or reason, to slide gradually into insanity. After all, they'd have forever to think about it…

All in all, this hankering after eternal life looks like a worse idea the more I consider it. Our physical and mental development is constructed around the idea of seasons in life – of passing through stages from childhood through adolescence to adulthood, maturity and old age, before we shuffle off this mortal coil. Apart from the practical problems I've discussed, a major extension to the length of our lives may do nothing to improve the overall quality of our existence; and immortality of any kind (physical or virtual) would, I suspect, eventually turn out to be appalling.