Saturday 29 May 2010

Film: Superman Returns

Superman Returns was one of my Christmas collection of recorded movies. It was, I suppose, a competent enough production but it left me pondering the whole question of realism and credibility in such present-day fantasies.

With any fantasy, the reader has to be capable of suspending disbelief in order to enjoy the story since at least one key aspect of it (e.g. a superhuman ability) is usually scientifically impossible. However, for it to be acceptable (to me, at any rate) it is important that the plot woven around this aspect should be internally consistent and reasonably logical.

To give some examples from my recent reviews: Batman Begins, while highly improbable, is not actually impossible. There are no magical powers, just a well-trained man using moderately advanced technology. With such limitations, tackling crime in his home city seems a reasonable target. There is a different approach in Gould's Jumper (the book not the film) in that the hero's ability to teleport is indeed impossible (as least as far as present-day science can conceive) but apart from that, what happens as a result is intensely realistic and credible. The X-Men films push the boundaries a bit further, since there are various different super abilities distributed among the characters. However, the plots built on this make acceptable sense.

So where does Superman fit into this? Not just one super ability, but a whole batch of them in one man; in fact, there's not a lot he can't do. He is so all-powerful that he would achieve an easy victory every time, so the debilitating effect of Kryptonite had to be added to provide any trace of dramatic tension. However, if you are able to take a really big swallow and suspend your disbelief about this, you then get to what Superman does with these abilities. Think about it for a moment; what would you do?

Well, recent earthquakes provide some obvious opportunities; rescuing people trapped in fallen buildings, rushing them to hospital, carrying in vast quantities of supplies and other necessities. Part of the world suffering a drought? Dump an iceberg into the nearest lake-bed. Famine in a war zone? Get the food through regardless of attempts to stop this. Worried about nuclear war or terrorism? Scrap North Korea's nuclear facility and haul Osama bin Laden out of whatever hole he's in. Then you come to the fun bits: want to encourage space exploration? Lots could be done; for example: deposit research satellites around the Solar System; launch probes at extremely high velocities towards all the most likely nearby stars; lift complete, self-contained, permanent habitats onto the Moon and Mars (although I'd insist that humanity develops and maintains the ability to transfer people and supplies between planets, otherwise they'd just rely on me and the whole endeavour would collapse when I wasn't there any more).

These kinds of plot elements could provide some interesting material. For instance, Superman was supposed to have been sent to Earth to benefit mankind, not just the USA, which (incredible as it may seem in the comic-strip world) may not always be in the right. If you're removing nuclear weapons, where do you stop, and why? Who would be in charge of your Mars (or wherever) base? How could you get the nations to work together? Lots of moral and political issues to tackle here.

So what does Superman do: any of this? Err no, actually, he just fights a criminal nutcase while rescuing people from small-scale disasters and dealing with routine crime. In other words, the film is entirely unbelievable in all respects from start to finish. This is fantasy for kiddies who, one would hope, would grow out of stuff like this before they're ten. It makes Batman Begins and the X-Men films look like epics of Shakespearean quality and grandeur. The film-makers try to distract attention from this by focusing on the romantic relationship between Superman and his former girlfriend, but to try to make a decent film about Superman is, to borrow a memorable phrase, like putting lipstick on a pig; it simply isn't worth the bother.

Saturday 22 May 2010

The Ruby Dice, by Catherine Asaro

I previously reviewed Catherine Asaro's Skolian Empire space-opera series in July 2007 (see the review list in the panel on the left) so I won't repeat the background to the stories here. Suffice to say that The Ruby Dice is the twelfth novel in the series, with a thirteenth (Diamond Star) already published and due out in paperback shortly.

The Ruby Dice focuses on two individuals: Kelric, the Rhon psion Skolian Imperator, and Jaibriol III, the Eubian Emperor. As leaders of the two great and fundamentally opposed interstellar empires, they personify the constant struggle between the slave-owning Eubians and the Skolians. All is not as it seems, however; unknown to the Eubians, Jaibriol is the son not just of the previous Emperor but also of the former Skolian Imperator, and he is a powerful psion - a fact which would lead to his instant deposition and death or slavery if it became known. Kelric also has a major secret; that in a previous period of his life (recounted in The Last Hawk, the seventh book of the series) he had been held as a prisoner on the restricted planet Coba, where he had not only learned to play the culture-dominating dice game of Quis to its highest level, he had also fathered two children.

The plot of The Ruby Dice starts a decade after both Kelric and Jaibriol had inherited their respective titles. Both men are separately determined to try to agree a peace treaty despite powerful internal opposition, and the viewpoint alternates between them as they scheme and take major risks to achieve this. The story makes a rather slow start, as it contains numerous infodumps to apprise new or forgetful readers of the background to the series and the events so far. Personally, I would much rather have this contained within a prologue which could be skipped if not needed, allowing the story to plunge straight into the plot. As it happens there is a prologue, but this has a different function, recounting some events a year before the plot starts. Once underway, however, Asaro's story-telling skills drew me in as usual.

For me, the scenes set in the Eubian court are far more fascinating than the Skolian episodes. Jaibriol is under intense pressure, not just from the normal deadly intrigues but also in trying to maintain the mental defences which prevent the Eubians from realising that he is one of the despised Rhon psions. A marvellous major character is his wife Tarquine, vastly older than himself and a ruthless and brilliant manipulator of the court on his behalf. The author has a lot of fun with the oblique and coded use of court language, direct speech being considered acceptable only among lovers - or to slaves. For instance, the comment "Paris is a decadent city, I have no desire to tour France again" actually means "the incomplete Treaty of Paris with the Skolians was a bad idea and not worth pursuing". Similarly, "Corbal values the dawn. He would never let its radiance dim" means "Corbal will stand by his slave mistress (named Sunrise) and would never abandon her".

I mentioned in my previous review that the later novels were beginning to show signs of the fatigue which almost always afflicts such a long series of novels set in the same universe. Certainly the pace has slowed somewhat as the author selects different facets of her creation to examine in more detail. However, the variety which her approach permits is ably used to maintain interest and prevent the setting becoming stale. The Skolian Empire series is a major achievement, and each new book remains on my "must buy" list.

Friday 14 May 2010

TV series: FlashForward, Ashes to Ashes, and The Prisoner

Three series currently showing on UK TV have varied SFF elements, and make for some interesting contrasts.

FlashForward is a US series, based on a 1999 novel of the same name by Canadian author Robert J Sawyer. It is set on a present-day Earth in which (almost) everyone blacked out for two minutes and seventeen seconds, during which they appeared to see visions of what would happen to them six months into the future. I haven't read the book and was unable to watch the first series (the channel it was shown on not then being available in my area) but came in on the two-part "special" and the start of series two. Sadly I didn't get much further since, although I was aware of the basic premise, the second series is packed so full of references to events and people in the first series that I found watching it an exercise in frustration. I gather from other commentators, however, that the series suffers from being far too drawn out (with 22 hour-long episodes in the first series alone) which means that the concept becomes seriously diluted.

This raises an interesting question concerning the optimum length of such series and whether or not it is important to try to keep the pacing and structure of the novel. Generally speaking, feature films don't have enough time to do justice to most novels, since they try to pack a story which typically takes over five hours to read (assuming 350+ pages) into a couple of hours. Long series like FlashForward go to the opposite extreme, stretching the plot to several times its original length. One consequence is that the focus may shift from the science-fictional premise to the activities and interrelationships of the characters. This might be acceptable if the characters are strong and their relationships develop in an interesting way, but that doesn't seem to be the case with FlashForward, judging both by my own brief exposure to it and the comments of others.

Ashes to Ashes is now in its third and last series. I reviewed the first two on this blog on 25 June 2009, so I won't go into the background again. This time the mood is darker, with the threatening figure of Jim Keats, a police officer tasked with reviewing Gene Hunt's (Philip Glenister) department, on a mission to discredit Hunt. Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes), thrown back from the present to 1983, becomes obsessed with the death of Sam Tyler, the former throwback in Life on Mars, and discovers evidence that Hunt was involved. However, the focus for much of the series has been on 1983 policing, with little evidence of the desperation to return to her young daughter Drake showed in the first two series; the only mysterious element being her repeated visions of a wounded policeman. Flashes of brilliant comedy are still there, however, one being the incorporation of a real-life incident, the vandalism of the garden developed for the children's TV show Blue Peter. This is "revealed" as being the consequence of a messy arrest by Gene Hunt and his team, who afterwards are shown glumly watching the actual 1983 TV programme which described the vandalism by persons unknown! Viewers are promised that the series will end by explaining what has been happening and wrapping up all the loose ends. It will be fascinating to see how they do this, but also a sad day - however, all good things must come to an end.

The Prisoner was a late-1960s British TV series concerning a former secret agent (played by Patrick McGoohan, who also devised the story and wrote several episodes) who wakes up in a mysterious village (the actual picture-postcard folly village of Portmerion in North Wales) from which he is prevented from leaving while those in charge try to find out why he resigned. The residents all have numbers rather than names and live a surreal existence which, along with the bizarre attempts to break the hero's resistance, provide a substantial fantasy element to what is ostensibly a spy thriller. (In this respect it is not dissimilar to another famous but lighter and more comedic series from the same period, The Avengers, in its definitive third series starring Diana Rigg). I saw the The Prisoner when it first appeared and saw it all again when it was broadcast a few years ago; it deservedly has cult status now.

A new version of The Prisoner is now showing. This is a joint US/UK production featuring an American hero (played by John Caviezel) and is set in a model village among the deserts of southern Africa. So far it looks promising, with a similar basic premise but enough differences to make it interesting, and lots of confusing blurring between the hero's past and present lives. One to keep watching, for now at least.

Friday 7 May 2010

2009 BSFA Short Fiction award

The British Science Fiction Association presents annual awards to the best in four categories (Novel, Short Fiction, Artwork and Non-Fiction) as determined by the votes of the members. The six stories in the Short Fiction category were included in a booklet sent out to members. By the time I worked my way to it through my ever-growing pile of reading material I was (as usual) too late to vote, but this is my take on them anyway. Two of them had previously been published in Interzone magazine so have already been mentioned in this blog, but I'll paste my comments in here to save you searching for them:

Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast by Eugie Foster (first published in Interzone 220): a fantasy in which everyone wears a mask in public – a mask which determines their personalities and the events they are involved in. It is illegal to be seen in public without one, so every morning people have to choose which identity to adopt from their varied collections of masks. But there are some who reject the idea and try to develop their own independent personalities.

Johnny and Emmy-Lou Get Married by Kim Lakin-Smith (first published in Interzone 222): 1950s-style romance across the boundaries of futuristic US gangs, the Rocketeers and the Flies.

The Push by Dave Hutchinson (first published in The Push, Newcon Press): a long short story about planetary colonisation. One of the original founders of a colony on a distant planet returns several centuries later (although only a few years for him as the result of the temporal effects of the FTL space travel technology) to discover that a previously non-sentient native race had suddenly acquired intelligence - and that meant trouble.

Vishnu at the Cat Circus (extract) by Ian McDonald (first published in Cyberabad Days, Gollancz): set in a future fragmented India, the ancient genetically-enhanced owner of a circus of performing cats tells the story of his early life.

The Beloved Time of their Lives by Ian Watson & Roberto Quaglia (first published in The Beloved Of My Beloved, Newcon Press): Two lovers keep meeting, the man growing steadily older as he works his way back though time to keep meeting his ever-younger lover.

The Assistant by Ian Whates (first published in The Solaris Book of Science Fiction, Volume 3): the cleaning squad enters the office building for their night job, but it involves a lot more than just physical cleaning; there are cyber attacks and infiltration by mini robots to deal with too.

I couldn't really evaluate Ian MacDonald's extract as it is abruptly cut short before it gets anywhere, and makes no sense by itself with a complete disconnect between the protagonist's early and late lives. For inventive and original fantasy I would choose Eugie Foster's story, but being a sucker for traditional SF my personal favourite was Dave Hutchinson's tale; it could have been written at any time in the past few decades but is none the worse for that.

PS Having written the above, I checked the BSFA site and found that the Watson/Quaglia story had won the award. I found that one a bit irritating because of the way in which the meetings were curtailed because the couple kept making the same mistake.