Friday 25 March 2011

Brasyl by Ian McDonald

This book was first published in 2007 and attracted glowing reviews plus several award nominations, being voted novel of the year by the British Science Fiction Association in 2008. My copy had been sitting on my bookshelf for a while, so I selected it as one of the reads for the Classic Science Fiction discussion group, which despite its title considers one new as well as one old book each month, plus a short story a week.

Brasyl has three plot threads which remain separate for much of its length, the only immediately obvious link being that they are all set in Brazil. The main thread is set in 2006 and follows the fortunes of Marcelina Hoffman, an unprincipled TV producer working on the next exploitative programme for her trashy TV channel. Another is set in 2032, a time of quantum computers and total surveillance, in which Edson Jesus Oliveira de Freitas, a small-time cross-dressing operator on the fringe between legitimate business and the criminal underworld, tries to make his fortune. The third goes back to 1732, when an Irish Jesuit admonitor, Father Quinn, is despatched up the Amazon to locate and bring back another Jesuit priest who has established his own empire there. The chapters rotate between the threads, carrying the stories along together.

The writing is of high quality with the Brazilian settings, old and new, obviously well researched and richly portrayed, but nevertheless I found this a difficult book to get into. One problem was that the multiplicity of secondary characters confused me - I kept losing track of who was who - as did the fact that the text is liberally sprinkled with Brazilian terms. There is a glossary at the back but I found that on most of the occasions when I referred to it, the word I wanted to clarify wasn't there. As a result I was never entirely on top of the action but was always struggling to keep up.

The first half of the book was therefore hard going, particularly since there is nothing particularly science-fictional about it except for the setting of the 2032 thread. If it hadn't been my selection for the discussion group, I might not have persevered. But I felt honour-bound to keep going, so I slogged on and was eventually rewarded as the action picks up in the second half. Links begin to appear between the threads, including "quantum knives" which can cut through anything, and an eternal battle between two shadowy organisations is gradually revealed in a way which will delight all conspiracy theorists. The climax, concerning the nature of our reality, is as ambitious as any SF reader could want.

In the end it was worth the read but, as with so many critically-acclaimed modern SF novels, I found that I admired it rather than really enjoyed it. The emphasis in the first half of the book on literary quality, on slowly developing the characters and their environments, robs it of the pace and tension which characterise the kind of stories I enjoy the most.

Friday 18 March 2011

Outcasts (BBC TV)

This eight-part serial has now finished, so as promised I'll sum up. To refresh your memories, I'll include some of what I said after the first two episodes.

The scenario is far enough into the future for humanity to have developed huge starships, one of which had managed to establish a colony on the distant planet of Carpathia (named after the ship which rescued survivors of the Titanic disaster) some fifteen years before. The name is significant as civilisation on Earth is collapsing, and the last starship is due to arrive.

Almost all of the 70,000 humans are concentrated in one walled settlement, Forthaven. The president (Liam Cunningham) aided by the head of security (Hermione Norris, who famously played a formidable MI5 agent in Spooks) try to hold the line while preparing for the arrival of the starship. All is not well, as the ship has suffered some damage which threatens disaster if it tries to land on the planet, so it launches an escape pod to ensure that some survive.

All is not well on Carpathia, either, as the team of explorers who spend most of their time away from the settlement are planning a rebellion. Just to complicate matters further, there is a band of renegade artificial humans (advanced cultivars, or ACs) in the wild, rejected by the settlement years before, with whom there is intermittent but bitter conflict.

The focus is very much on the human drama and the acting is initially variable (Norris being the stand-out performer) with some of the dialogue sounding stiff and awkward; a perennial screen-SF problem. This seemed to get better as the serial progressed, or perhaps I just got used to it. Also developing through the serial was the role and relationship of two of the internal security officers, played by Daniel Mays and Amy Manson.

I was amused to note that the one clear villain - the former head of the evacuation programme (played by Eric Mabius), who arrives on the escape pod and immediately starts to worm his sly and manipulative way up Carpathia's hierarchy - is constantly criticised for bringing religion to the secular colony and cynically using this as his vehicle for building a power base. I suspect this might not go down too well in some markets…

The SF elements are initially weak, and by the half-way stage I was ready to dismiss it as a soap opera with a few unusual plot elements in a mildly exotic setting. It is a puzzle to work out what everyone does or how they live, as the town is surrounded by wasteland and hardly anyone ever goes outside the walls. The discovery of natural diamonds lying around to be picked up is acceptable, but the fact that they are mysteriously gem-cut rather than in the rough is not. However, the background music is worth a mention as it is one of the strong points. It reaches elegaic heights, powerfully reinforcing moments of high drama. Intriguingly, the more stacatto music used to accompany action scenes is very reminiscent of similar music in Spooks.

The second half of the serial contains a lot more science-fictional mystery, although it frequently doesn't seem to make sense. First comes the discovery of fossils of early hominim remains, despite the fact that there is no other animal life on the planet - just plants and insects (I still don't understand that: hominims dying out, sure, but they would only have been the tip of an enormous pyramid of animal life - did that all die out? We are not told). This is accompanied by hints from one of the first men on the planet, who has been living rough in the wild, that the planet did not want humans there. Then people begin to report seeing loved ones they know to be dead, a convincing duplicate of one of the explorers appears (the fact that this duplicate is clearly solid, whereas others appear and disappear instantly, remains unexplained), a mysterious disease strikes and it becomes clear that the colony is facing a deadly but hidden threat. Meanwhile, a further and unsuspected starship secretly approaches Carpathia with malevolent intentions.

By the start of the final episode I was wondering how all of the plot threads, both human and alien, could possibly be resolved in just one hour. The answer is that they weren't; it ends on a huge multiple cliff-hanger, the point of maximum crisis for the whole story so far, evidently lining everything up for a second serial. This would be fine if a sequel was coming along soon, but the viewing figures were disappointing and the BBC announced immediately after the finale that the planned second serial had been cancelled. So, rather frustratingly, we will never know the answers to the many questions.

Why did it fail? I think it was too adult and slow-paced to appeal to the usual Doctor Who/Primeval band of TV SFF followers, while containing too many unexplained inconsistencies to satisfy more mature SF fans (a nit-picking lot, we are). And of course, few people who are not SF fans bother to watch any SF programmes unless they are so good that they transcend the usual genre prejudice barrier.

Outcasts is easy to poke holes in, but I found I had become strangely attached to it and will miss my weekly visits to Carpathia. Despite a slow start and the unexplained inconsistencies, it had managed to get its hooks into me.

Saturday 12 March 2011

Films: Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010)

I seem to be working through superhero movies at the moment, even though I'm not a fan of the genre and scarcely looked at any comics even in my youth, let alone since. However, good ones do make for stress-free undemanding entertainment and there have been some critically acclaimed examples recently, among them the Iron Man films.

Robert Downey plays Tony Stark, the womanising engineer/genius inventor head of a major armaments firm, who is injured and captured by terrorists in Afghanistan and held for three months, supposedly working on a weapon for them. In fact, he is building a prototype powered armoured suit with which he escapes, but he has been changed by his ordeal and decides to stop making armaments. Back home, he is opposed by Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), his deputy, but supported by his adoring assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). He works on perfecting his powered, flying and fighting suit, using an "arc reactor" of his own invention to provide almost limitless power. With this, he returns to Afghanistan to take on the terrorists and is later faced with an even more grave threat at home, when he is challenged by a second "iron man" built using his original plans. The first film ends with his identity as "Iron Man" revealed.

Iron Man is as good as Nolan's Batman films - which is to say, very good indeed - with Downey being remarkably convincing as the conflicted inventor. His performance dominates the screen, with Patrow very good in the supporting role; the on-screen chemistry between them works well.

As a result, I looked forward to the sequel, Iron Man 2. Sadly, this is just a rehash of the first, with yet another "Iron Man" emerging to challenge him. The film tries to distract the audience from noticing the lack of original ideas by introducing Scarlett Johansson as an athletic secret agent and throwing in more fight scenes and bigger explosions, but it doesn't really work and I was relieved when it ended. It isn't a bad film by most standards, but was a major disappointment after Iron Man.

Saturday 5 March 2011

Blindsight by Peter Watts

The time is the late 21st century, and the aliens have arrived. Sixty-five thousand unknown objects, in perfectly symmetrical formation, simultaneously burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. An unmanned probe, far out at the edge of the Solar System, detects the faint trace of communications from a large asteroid, aimed further out into space. High-velocity remote probes are sent from Earth, but the asteroid explodes. A manned ship, crewed by a handful of radically adapted specialists, follows the communication trace out towards the Oort Cloud. Their leader is a vampire.

Some time before, it had been discovered that vampires once existed before being killed off by humans at the dawn of civilisation. Their genome had been retrieved from ancient remains and they had been reconstructed. They are top predators (humanity being their favoured prey) who can paralyse people with fear just by looking into their eyes, and were only defeated because they suffer a massive seizure and become helpless at the sight of right-angles – such as a cross. To overcome this they are given a medicine which also tames their predatory instincts; they are valued because they are vastly more intelligent than humans. Their ability to hibernate in a near-death state for months or years has been transferred to the humans who form the rest of the crew, allowing them to make the long, slow journey.

One of the crew is Siri Keeton, a synthesist with half his brain removed in childhood to cure his constant and violent seizures. The vacated space is now filled with technology used to enhance his autistic ability to dispassionately observe and analyse events - and especially the rest of the crew - in order to keep an objective record to send back to Earth.

They manage to track down the destination of the signal, a bizarre alien craft orbiting a brown dwarf star, too dim to have been detected from Earth. The craft appears to be growing but its nature, and that of what the crew assume to be the aliens inhabiting it, makes no sense. The crew struggle to understand what is happening, and suffer increasing stress as the situation deteriorates beyond their control.

Blindsight is an ambitious epic of first contact, in the best tradition of hard SF. It is packed full of original and sometimes startling ideas, and richly deserved the Hugo nomination it received when published a few years ago. However, I have to say that I did not find it an easy read. The very density of ideas slows the pace, while the reader is made to work hard to follow what is going on. I found that I could only read it in small doses so it took me over a week to complete. It was worth the effort, though the conclusion is not one that optimists will enjoy.