Friday 26 March 2010

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Now a quarter of a century old, Neuromancer is widely regarded as a classic of modern SF (if that isn't a tautology). It won just about every award going for its portrayal of a future in which skilled people could be "jacked in" to the information technology network, able to experience it as a virtual landscape and navigate around its programmes and data storage nodes, evading defensive systems and stealing data. Old hat now, but not at the time.

I read it when it first came out, and frankly had forgotten everything about it - even reading it again rang no bells at all. I find these inconsistencies from time to time; sometimes I can clearly remember stories even if they're not much good, at other times even a good tale slips through the gaps in my memory.

Anyway, what did I think of it this time? I was deeply impressed; I found it much better than I had expected. This is not mainly due to the virtual world concepts but simply because the tale of Case, a former cyberspace expert recruited to a dangerous mission, is a rattling good thriller, told with a blend of pace and style which would be equally successful in other genres. The language is often terrific:

"Gravity came down on him like a great soft hand with bones of ancient stone."

"Case's consciousness divided like beads of mercury, arcing above an endless beach the color of the dark silver clouds. His vision was spherical, as if a single retina lined the inner surface of a globe that contained all things…"

If I have any criticism it is that the plot is so densely packed, the writing so laconic, that you really have to stay on your mental toes to keep up with everything that's going on. This is not a book to fill an idle moment, you need to settle down and concentrate. In fact, I was tempted to read it again immediately, in order to savour it in a more leisurely fashion and pick up on the nuances that I suspect slipped by me the first time. Why it made so little impression on me on first reading I don't know; but this one is now added to my pantheon of the SF greats. If you've never read it, treat yourself.
Joy of joys, the third (and sadly final) series of Ashes to Ashes commences on UK TV next week. For those unfamiliar with this, check out my blog post of 25 June last year where I write about this series and its predecessor, Life on Mars. I'm looking forward to a lot more of those bizarre one-liners from Gene Hunt, like "…as nervous as a very small nun at a penguin shoot".

Friday 19 March 2010

The Matrix films revisited

I seem to be watching more films than reading books lately, probably because I recorded a lot of the Christmas TV schedules so I've been playing catch-up ever since.

As a result, I saw the Matrix trilogy again recently, for the first time since they were newly released (was The Matrix really over ten years ago?). I was impressed with the first of the series when I saw it originally and it has worn well, rich in SF ideas and with a complexity which makes the story in the visually wonderful Avatar seem as simple as a child's cartoon strip. I think that The Matrix is not far behind Blade Runner in the elite group of the best SF films ever made, and it's a lot more inventive.

Sadly the two sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, released four years later following the huge success of the original, were a major disappointment. The impression I get is that the Wachowski brothers poured all of their ideas into The Matrix and were stumped for what to do next. Reloaded has just one really good, original SF scene (and the only one which significantly carries the plot forward); the climactic meeting between Neo and the Architect of the Matrix, the inventor of the virtual existence in which most of humanity is unwittingly trapped. Neo learns that he is the sixth version of himself to face the Architect and that his repeated appearance was due to an inherent flaw in the programming. All the time this meeting is taking place, the wall of TV screens is showing the varied reactions of his predecessors at their meetings with the Architect. As for the rest of the film, the brothers evidently decided to please the teenagers and fill it with combat and car chase scenes. While technically good, these go on and on interminably, well past the point of tedium, until you are praying for the bad guys to kill off the good guys just to put an end to it all. The only relief from this comes from the occasional pretentious speech, which is scarcely an improvement. Amazingly, Reloaded was more successful at the box office than The Matrix. There's no accounting for taste…

Revolutions is better, largely because the plot actually progresses to a conclusion rather than just marking time. Events begin to make some sort of sense - I particularly liked the notion that the evil Mr Smith programme was the inevitable balancing force to Neo's existence - and the ending was satisfactory. The various fight sequences were still tediously long, though, and Trinity's death scene was ludicrously unrealistic and protracted.

The decision to split the sequel to The Matrix into two separate films was presumably motivated purely by money (hey, we've got all this footage, instead of doing a decent editing job let's use all of it and make the fans pay twice over!). This is emphasised by the fact that there is no proper separation between the two; Reloaded ends in the middle of events and Revolutions picks up immediately without any kind of lead-in or introduction, so they need to be seen in quick succession or the viewer will lose track of what's going on. The problem is that there is barely enough worthwhile material to make one decent film out of the pair of them. So come on, brothers, now you've made your pile let's have a proper "directors' cut" which will do exactly that, combining the best one-third of Reloaded and two-thirds of Revolutions to make the single film which always should have been released. Call it The Matrix Revisited if you like! This could make a worthy sequel to The Matrix - even if it still wouldn't be as good.

One point of detail caught my attention in the first film, concerning the traitor who was tired of the grim reality of life and wanted to be returned to the Matrix, provided that he was assigned a wealthy and famous identity. What intrigued me is that he wanted the memories of his nine years of life outside the Matrix removed so that he would have no idea that his virtual life wasn't real. The thought crossed my mind that if that happened, he wouldn't be the same person; it would be as if he had been killed and a stranger had taken over. So how would he - the essential "he" - have benefited from that?

This reminded me of a similar issue I have mentioned before concerning Star Trek's transporter system, in which individuals are scanned and their complete data transmitted elsewhere to be instantly recreated. In this process, their existing bodies are destroyed. No-one would be able to tell the difference between the original and the copy as they are identical in every detail, but in one important respect they are not the same: the original is killed and a copy is made. The copy has all the memories of the original, and believes he is the original, but he isn't. This problem is more clearly laid out in The Prestige by Christopher Priest (I haven't read it yet, but I have seen the highly rated film). In this case a copy is made by the Tesla machine but the original remains in existence. So, the key question is this: if you entered the Tesla machine and a copy of you appeared in front of you, would you be happy to be killed, knowing that your exact copy would survive? Personally, I wouldn't - which means that I would never want to use a Star Trek type of transporter, because that is in effect what happens.

The same issue of identity is involved in the idea of uploading your mind to a computer so that you can live a virtual and theoretically immortal existence. But it wouldn't really be you living the virtual life, but a copy of yourself - as would be obvious if your corporeal mind remained in existence. Oh well, we won't have any practical cause to worry about such issues for a long time to come…

Friday 12 March 2010

The Asteroid Menace

The subject of the threat to our civilisation from asteroid impact is an old one in SF, having inspired various novels (of which Arthur Clarke's The Hammer of God, reviewed here 12 Sep 2008, is probably the most informative, albeit now a bit old) and a couple of modern Hollywood films (Deep Impact and Armageddon, both released in 1998). Only the other week, a careful analysis of all of the data relating to the great dinosaur die-off 65 million years ago confirmed beyond reasonable doubt that the major blow was struck by the asteroid, ten kilometres in diameter, which created the 180 kilometre wide, 900 metre deep, Chicxulub crater in Central America, with catastrophic consequences for the planetary environment.

Such a huge impact happens about once every 100 million years on average, and at present there is nothing that humanity could do to prevent it from happening again - or even to deal with a much smaller incoming asteroid which could still cause a major regional disaster. A collision with a 200 metre wide body takes place about once every 10,000 years. Several asteroids have been identified which will pass close enough to the Earth to create a small risk of collision, the most worrying being Apophis, with is 270 metres wide and has a one in 45,000 chance of hitting us in 2036. So it's worth devoting some thought to how we might protect ourselves in the future.

Current thinking on these issues was discussed in a couple of New Scientist articles by David Shiga last year: How to save the world from an asteroid impact (28/3/09) and No need to worry about asteroid tsunami disaster (18/4/09).

The author summarises three possible means of preventing or reducing the scale of the destruction: blasting it apart with nuclear weapons (which may mean that many smaller chunks hit the Earth with lesser but still serious consequences); forcing it off course by hitting it with another heavy object travelling at speed (technically difficult and risky); or nudging it more gently out of the way without breaking it apart, by detonating a nuclear device at a distance or pushing it with high-powered lasers.

Work has taken place at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California to evaluate the possibility of pushing an asteroid aside with a nuclear blast. This is complicated by the fact that most small asteroids are believed to be loose agglomerations of material rather than solid objects. They were able to demonstrate that it would be possible to change the velocity of a one kilometre wide asteroid sufficiently to miss the Earth by detonating a 100 kt bomb some 250 metres behind it - provided that this was done thirty years before the impact. An alternative being considered is to detonate a much smaller (less than 1 kilotonne) weapon just below the surface. These seem to be the best techniques available to us for the time being, provided that we have enough notice: the shorter the warning time, the more difficult it becomes.

If we have only a short warning time we would need to revert to Plan A and attempt to fragment the asteroid with a massive nuclear device detonated under the surface. If done three years before impact, only a very small fraction of the resulting debris cloud would hit the Earth - but this may not work if the asteroid is one solid chunk of rock.

A more technically difficult but potentially less risky proposal is to use lasers. These would be mounted in spacecraft, several of which would be sent out to rendezvous with the asteroid. They would focus their beams on one point on the surface, creating a plume of vapourised rock which over a period of months or years would act as a side-thruster, nudging the asteroid onto a safer course.

But suppose all these attempt fail, what happens if a large asteroid strikes? Given that the Earth's surface is 70% water, there's a good chance that it would land in the sea and cause a massive tsunami, but there is some dispute as to exactly how big this might be. If a 200 metre wide body struck the deep ocean it would displace billions of tons of water, creating waves hundreds of metres high. However, unlike the earthquake-induced tsunamis with which we have become familiar, these huge, steep waves are likely to collapse and rapidly reduce in height with distance, declining to perhaps 10 metres at a distance of 1,000 km. Given the way in which oceanic waves pile up and increase in height as they approach the land that still sounds very serious, but the shorter wavelength of impact waves (less than two minutes rather than eight minutes for a typical tsunami) means that they would be unlikely to penetrate so far inland. Such an impact, while still devastating to land areas nearby, may therefore have a more limited effect than earlier studies suggested.

This may be slightly reassuring, but having seen the consequences of much smaller waves from the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004, it's still worth putting significant scientific effort and funding into methods to avert such a disaster.

Friday 5 March 2010

Library of the Dead by Glenn Cooper

This almost certainly will not be found in the SFF section of the bookshop, but Library of the Dead is one of that curious genre of modern thrillers which have strong fantasy elements. I should warn you in advance that this review contains spoilers, as it’s otherwise difficult to discuss.

Several different story threads are followed. Most of the tale takes place in present-day USA but there are also several chapters set much earlier in England; in 1947 and in the 13th and 8th centuries. As you might expect, all these threads are woven together in the end.

The present-day thread starts out as a conventional detective story. FBI agent Will Piper, formerly an expert on serial killers but now approaching a drink-sodden retirement, is called upon to make one last effort to catch the “Doomsday Killer”; someone is sending postcards to people showing just a coffin and the date of their deaths, which duly come to pass. The problem is that nothing except the postcards seems to connect the victims, some of whose deaths appear to be natural.

A mystery element is introduced early on when an unnamed cargo, dug up by archaeologists in Britain in 1947 but considered too problematic to retain, is transferred to the USA. Piper’s present-day efforts to identify the killer are then alternated with scenes from the 8th Century in which the nature of the secret is soon revealed; a strange child is born who cannot speak but has only one obsessive activity - writing down people's names and their locations, plus their dates of birth and death. Not in the past, but in the future.

One of the present-day characters, a former classmate of Piper, works at a secret government establishment which is gradually revealed as being devoted to analysing the mass of data discovered by the archaeologists. The pace accelerates as Piper tries to solve the problem while being pursued by ruthless government agents determined to prevent the secret from being revealed.

This isn’t a bad read, its 400 pages slipping by easily enough. There is certain lack of tension caused by the fact that the historical scenes soon make it pretty obvious to the reader what the “Doomsday killings” are all about, while Piper remains in ignorance until close to the end. However, there is an unexpected and dramatic twist in the final chapter, set in the 13th century, which casts everything in an entirely new light.

This odd kind of mixture of realistic present-day thriller mixed with supernatural elements (frequently involving archaeology and ancient secrets) appears to be increasingly popular, although logically one might expect that the separate elements would appeal to entirely different audiences. Ironically, it means that there is a large number of readers who wouldn’t dream of reading a mainstream fantasy novel but who are, nonetheless, reading fantasy!