Friday 30 April 2010

Films: The Time Machine, and Timeline

Two films with a central theme in common - time travel.

I re-read H G Wells' novel The Time Machine only last year (see review list on the left) and vaguely recall watching the 1960 film version, so when the 2002 film appeared on TV I naturally had to watch it. My first reaction was one of puzzlement; not only was the setting changed from London to New York (par for the course for Hollywood, which seems to find it hard to imagine that anything of interest could ever happen outside the USA) but the first quarter of an hour or so is entirely new, concerning a doomed love affair. It transpires that this is what drives the central character (a physics professor) to develop a time machine, and after some more diversions the story duly arrives 800,000 years in the future, into the world of the Eloi and the Morlocks. Sadly, the devolution of humanity is glossed over, the Eloi shown as normally intelligent rather than stupid, with the cause of humanity's lost civilisation being put down to a man-made physical disaster (the break-up of the Moon) rather than natural evolutionary forces. Also the evocative final section of the book, in which the time traveller visits a dying Earth from which humanity has disappeared, is omitted, to be replaced by a tacked-on and totally nonsensical destroy-the-bad-guys-and-live-happily-ever-after ending. A dumbed-down sketch of a classic novel; Hollywood doing its worst.

I had never heard of Michael Crichton's 1999 novel Timeline and didn't realise that the 2003 film I had just watched was based on this until the credits rolled. So I can't comment on how faithful (or otherwise) the film was to the book. This is probably just as well, otherwise I might have found far more fault with it. As it was, I enjoyed the tale of the team of modern archaeologists using a time-travel machine to visit medieval France at a crucial point in history, in order to rescue one of their colleagues. Much scheming and fighting result as the archaeologists desperately try to return to the present day. Far from serious, but enjoyably entertaining.

If there's one lesson to learn from these two films, it's this: if at all possible, try to see the film before you read the book. You are then more likely to enjoy the film.

Friday 23 April 2010

Slan, and Slan Hunter, by A.E. van Vogt & Kevin J Anderson

It is a very long time since I read Slan, one of the classic novels of the "golden age" of the 1940s which had a huge impact at the time, so when I learned that a sequel had been written I decided to read both.

Slan is a far-future story set on Earth (with scenes on Mars towards the end) in which enhanced humans called slans, featuring extended lifespans, inhuman strength, speed and intelligence, plus the ability to read minds with the aid of fine "tendrils" in their hair, are being persecuted close to extinction by the rest of humanity. The hero of the story is Jommy Cross, a young slan whose mother is killed in the first scene of the tale. Captured by an old woman who uses him as a thief, he grows up and discovers the secrets of advanced science left to him by his father, which enable him to construct formidable technological devices. He also discovers that there is a secret race of tendrilless slans who cannot read minds but whose abilities have allowed them to monopolise air travel - and to clandestinely develop space travel as well. His long search to discover other true slans and to understand why humans and the tendrilless slans hate them so much fills the rest of the novel.

The story is very much of its time and is dated in style as well as scientific understanding - Mars is portrayed as having a breathable atmosphere, for example. The ending is also rather rushed, consisting of a long infodump in which Jommy is told the answers to many of the questions which have troubled him. Despite these flaws the relentless pace and unrestrained imagination drag the reader along, as usual with a van Vogt tale.

In the 1980s the author began to write a sequel, but only got as far as the story outline and a hundred or so pages before he stopped. Kevin J Anderson was eventually given the job of completing the tale and the result, Slan Hunter, was published in 2007. This picks up when Slan left off, concluding the tale of Jommy's search to discover the truth about the slans of both varieties, with all loose ends neatly tied up. I was amused to notice a couple of retrospective explanations for peculiarities in the original. Mars has a breathable atmosphere, we are told, because a thousand years earlier humanity had bombarded the planet with ice comets, algae and bacteria in a massive terraforming exercise, resulting in the return of surface water, a thick atmosphere and warmer temperatures. Also, the remarkable similarity of human culture and technology to 1940s USA is explained by the devastating effect of the slan wars, so that "even now our society has returned only to the equivalent of the United States of America back in the 1940s…some of the cultural similarities to that period are quite striking." Indeed they are!

The new book remains very faithful in style to the original. This also applies to the ending, including as it does some sudden and unexpected revelations. I have to say that this is not necessarily a good thing, unless you think that van Vogt's style can't be improved on. I found that I am much more inclined to be tolerant of technical and stylistic shortcomings in a 1940s book than I am in a 21st century one. This is very unfair of me since Anderson evidently worked hard to match the original, but from my perspective he can't really win: his deliberate pastiche of 1940s style doesn't particularly appeal to me, but a more modern approach would probably have infuriated van Vogt's more devoted fans. So it goes…

Friday 16 April 2010

Politics, climate change and fiction

It's been a bad year for politicians, climate change and my novel-writing efforts (yes, there is an admittedly rather tenuous link between all of these).

Here in the Land of Uk, our politicians have been neatly hoist with their own petard in that the Freedom of Information (FoI) act which they passed a few years ago has been used to expose all kinds of shenanigans with their expenses. A few of the more extreme cases are now subject to criminal proceedings, but the lesser offenders fell foul of a kind of cultural groupthink; they fell in with a prevailing official culture which allowed all kinds of secret abuses of the system on the grounds that their basic pay was being artificially restricted for political reasons. When the news broke, howls of rage and derision were heard throughout the land. The fall-out is due to land soon with the forthcoming General Election which will see the biggest clear-out of politicians since 1945 - plus a popular wish for a "none of the above!" option to be provided on the voting form.

Politicians also failed to shine in a different way at the Copenhagen conference on climate change. Here they could really have done with some groupthink to get their act together and come up with some constructive results, but they failed. Part of the problem is that most politicians are more concerned with being re-elected than anything else, which makes them very sensitive to public opinion, which means they are strongly inclined to follow public opinion rather than lead it - even when that opinion is badly informed. The inevitable conclusion is that democracy, for all of its other merits, is a very poor system for persuading people that they really do need to face up to something which they would really rather not - especially if the problem is very complex and isn't due to hit home for decades (i.e. many elections away). Ironically one country which is unconcerned about elections - China - had its own reasons for not wanting to know about any potential restrictions on economic growth.

Most of the reason for the Copenhagen failure was probably the feeling that recovering from the economic recession took priority, but it wasn't helped by the publicity about the now notorious emails within the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. These revealed another kind of groupthink among the researchers, who felt themselves beleaguered by the constant attempts to discredit their work, including the bombardment of demands for information under that same FoI act which did for the MPs. They seem to have adopted a bunker mentality, trying to block and frustrate the activities of their critics. As is now obvious, this was a very bad idea. So was the inclusion by the IPCC of an unsupported remark concerning the rate of melting of Himalayan glaciers in what was supposed to be a peer-reviewed and thoroughly checked report.

All of this has no doubt contributed to the sharp increase in the number of those in the UK who do not believe that climate change is a problem, although I suspect that a much bigger reason was the severe winter we've just endured. I had to laugh at the cartoon which showed a traffic jam of cars partly buried in snow with, coming from all of them, a version of that well-known question-and-response chant familiar from demonstrations and protest marches:

"What do we want?"
"Global warming!"
"When do we want it?"

The fact that the Meteorological Office had predicted a milder than usual winter, coupled with their springtime prediction of a "barbeque summer" which turned out to be thoroughly wet and cold, only added to the public feeling that the so-called experts had no idea what they were talking about.

The problem basically comes back to the fact that climate change is a complex subject with long-term consequences. Unfortunately, amendments to our behaviour to deal with this are also long-term in their effect, and therefore need to be put in place well in advance. In order to try to wake the public up to the potential severity of the situation, there is no doubt that many people involved with climate change research have been guilty of over-simplifying and over-dramatising the issues. Sadly they have thereby supplied free ammunition to those who do not want to believe that there is a problem, or if there is one that it is anything to do with human activities, or that if it is to do with human activities, that there is anything that we can realistically do about it.

As an interested bystander , I offer my own small contribution to correcting these perception problems by going back to basics. The first essential is to clarify the distinctions between global warming, climate change and weather; something which a lot of people are evidently still confused about.

Global warming describes the gradual increase in average planetary temperatures over the past century or so. It's important to stress the "average" bit: on a year-by-year temperature graph, the line zig-zags up and down, making it difficult to see what is happening. So statisticians calculate a rolling average over several years; this smooths out the annual variations and shows the underlying trend. And what this trend shows is that the planet is indubitably warming up: see THIS. Various explanations have been put forward for this and (as is usually the case) the truth is likely to be a complex blend of interacting reasons: but the informed opinion of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists is that the substantial increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide resulting from human industrial activities (which is also well evidenced) bears a very large share of the blame.

Climate change affects us much more directly than global warming: it concerns what happens to regional temperature, wind and rainfall patterns as a result of the overall warming trend. This has been the subject of many of the more alarming predictions about the consequences for humanity. However, it is a very complex and difficult area to predict, so any statements about the consequences need to be expressed as probabilities rather than certainties - and even the probabilities need to be regarded with caution as they will certainly change as we learn more over time. Having said that, there are already considerable differences from one part of the world to another. For instance, the Arctic is warming up faster than anywhere else, probably because the much reduced summer ice cover is allowing the ocean to absorb more of the suns rays and thereby warm up, instead of the rays being reflected back to space by the ice cover. At the other extreme, the Antarctic is hardly warming at all. Perhaps even more significant than temperature changes are the consequences for wind and ocean current patterns and how they will affect rainfall. All we can say at the moment is that there will be a wide range of climate changes in different parts of the world, and that while some may be beneficial to specific areas, the overall consequences are likely to be negative. Why is this? Simply because our current patterns of population distribution and agriculture are based on and adapted to the existing regional climates, so if these change for the worse (e.g. less rainfall in an agricultural area) the effects are likely to be serious. These comments only apply to moderate levels of climate change. If the global average temperature increases by several degrees, then the resulting climate changes are likely to be catastrophic almost everywhere.

Finally, Weather. This of course describes the temperatures, winds and rainfalls which we experience hour by hour, day by day, month by month. The graphs for these zig-zag around wildly, giving us considerable short-term variations (hence the wet summer and cold winter). These can be very inconvenient but are not of any long-term significance. It is only if the weather changes consistently and over a long period of time that this becomes important - and then it becomes climate change.

From my perspective, the whole question of climate change is one of risk assessment: how likely is it to happen, and if it does happen, how bad might the consequences be? Finally, what would be the costs of taking remedial action? As you will have gathered, there are no certainties in any of this, nor are any simple answers possible. However, the best judgment which I can make from studying the published evidence and the professional opinions of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists is that global warming is very likely to continue unless we take some strenous actions to prevent it; that this will drive ever-increasing climate change; and that the long-term consequences for our civilisation are likely to be serious.

So what should or could we be doing about all of this? I have gone into this in some detail HERE. The main point is that adapting our activities to reduce global warming as far as possible is not all bad news, because it brings opportunities as well as costs: as old industries wind down, new ones will spring up. This is already happening in many areas of life (to give a simple example: as production of low-efficiency light bulbs declines, that of high-efficiency ones accelerates), and these changes will continue anyway.

So what on earth has all this to do with my novel-writing problems? Well, a year or two ago I had an idea for a new novel. I was intrigued by the kind of existence people would have living in arcologies - basically huge buildings containing homes, shops, workplaces, leisure facilities, even food-producing areas - but considered that these are only likely to become economically worthwhile if temperatures fall considerably while energy costs rise, because of the huge energy savings they would permit. At that time there was considerable concern that the melting Arctic ice might stop the flow of the warm current from the Caribbean which keeps NW Europe much warmer than it otherwise would be, so this region could experience a fairly short-term but severe cooling effect, until global warming gradually restored the situation. Great! I had the background I needed and could get on with devising a suitably science-fictional murder-mystery set in my arcology. I had it all planned out - right down to the dramatic final twist - and was happily ploughing through it when disaster struck. I discovered that the original concerns had been caused by oceanic measurements which indicated that the current had already slowed by 30% over a few decades; but more recent research had showed that this was merely a short-term variation, and that particular threat was no longer regarded as very likely. Collapse of one SF author, torpedoed below the water line. Oh well, I suppose that novel was just an early casualty of climate change!

Saturday 10 April 2010

Films - Eagle Eye, and District 13: Ultimatum

Two very different near-future thrillers with SF elements.

Eagle Eye is a 2008 mystery thriller set in the USA. It concerns a young man and a young mother who are coerced into assisting a mysterious and apparently all-powerful organisation which is able to monitor them by tapping into nearby CCTV, communicate with them by ringing any phone in their vicinity plus altering electronic message boards and video displays they pass, and can also assist their progress (or threaten them) by switching traffic lights and taking over remote-controlled machinery.

The pair are soon on the run from the authorities while desperately following a string of instructions with no obvious purpose, until the threads gradually come together to reveal a deadly threat to the US government. It is the nature of this threat which puts the film into the SF bracket (although it may also be described as a "techno-thriller"). Lightweight entertainment, but not bad.

I enjoyed the original District 13 - a 2004 French film set in Paris. The social problems caused by an undesirable banlieue, or district, had been "solved" by walling it off, creating a lawless environment within it. An action-man supercop joined forces with an athletic resident to resolve the threat of a nuclear bomb being exploded in the District. Much entertaining action followed, focusing on the parkour (free-running) exploits of the heroes racing around the rooftops.

The sequel, District 13: Ultimatum, features the same pair of heroes trying to stop a dastardly plan to demolish much of the District so that a major construction company can make a vast fortune redeveloping it for the middle classes. We first see the supercop passing as a (female) prostitute in order to infiltrate a drug-dealing nightclub. At the same time, a secret arm of the government security forces is setting up an incident designed to provoke riots within the District, giving its corrupt leaders, bribed by the construction company, the excuse to clear the area ready for demolition. Only the heroes can stop this from happening, but one of them is soon in prison and the other is on the run.

The action is just as entertaining as before, the combat scenes just as improbable. The violence is tongue-in-cheek; there is hardly any visible blood and very few deaths despite the constant mayhem. What lifts this above the usual is its mischievous sense of humour, providing lots of laugh-out-loud moments. I particularly enjoyed the attempt to escape from a building by car, which resulted in it being driven up into, around and down out of, the first floor (don't ask) before being driven off. And the name of the corrupt construction company? Harriburton!

Apart from the humour there is a very French sense of nonchalant style about these films. Very much not Hollywood, and very enjoyable in a light-hearted way. The film is subtitled which may put off some viewers, but I found that once the action got underway I barely noticed.

Friday 2 April 2010

Interzone 227

The featured author in the March/April issue of Interzone is Connie Willis. There's an interview with Paul F. Cockburn in which she talks about her work in general and her latest duology set in the London Blitz, Blackout and All Clear (really one novel split into two volumes). There's also a review of Blackout. The author is best known for short stories, although I can't recall having read any by her (my short-story reading being largely confined to Interzone and British Fantasy Society publications). I have read a couple of her novels, however; To Say Nothing of the Dog and Passage, both of which I reviewed on this blog (see review list on the left). Two things struck me about her novel writing: it is very good, but it goes on at inordinate length. As the reviewer of the 500-page Blackout puts it, she has a "relaxed pacing". Still, I expect I might well tackle these two sometime, despite the vast allocation of time I'd need to set aside for them.

The rest of the review section is notable for discussing the film Avatar at some length, providing a lot of background information concerning the making of the film.

Finally, the usual half-dozen short stories:

The History of Poly-V by Jon Ingold, illustrated by Robert Dunn.
A small team of research scientists discovers a drug which enables memories to be retrieved precisely and in great detail, as if they were being experienced afresh. It's a great commercial success, but further development work begins to reveal that memories are not what they used to be.

Dance of the Kawkawroons by Mercurio D. Rivera, illustrated by Jim Burns.
A couple of fortune hunters manage to bypass the quarantine patrols around a planet populated by some exotic intelligent flying creatures living among the ruins of an ancient alien civilisation. They steal some eggs which have characteristics which are incredibly valuable to humanity; but who is exploiting whom?

Chimbwi by Jim Hawkins, illustrated by Ben Baldwin.
Western civilisation is collapsing into chaos, but in Africa scientific breakthroughs have provided limitless free power. A British physicist makes the hazardous journey to start a new life there, and discovers that to be accepted he needs to demonstrate a lot more than just scientific knowledge.

Flying in the Face of God by Nina Allan, illustrated by Robert Dunn.
An astronaut makes her goodbyes as she is irrevocably changed by a treatment to make long space journeys possible.

Johnny's New Job by Chris Beckett.
The ultimate expression of the blame culture visitied upon social workers who make the wrong judgments.

The Glare and the Glow by Steve Rasnic Tem, illustrated by Dave Senecal.
Strange new light bulbs reveal far more than is comfortable.

I was particularly impressed by the first three stories which, while very different in style and content, are good enough to be published anywhere.