Friday 25 November 2011

Films: The Ninth Gate (1999) and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

This time we have two Johnny Depp films for the price of one.

I hadn't previously seen The Ninth Gate. Depp plays Dean Corso, a mercenary book dealer who is hired by Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to verify the authenticity of a rare book he owns, The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, of which only three copies are known. The book contains nine engravings which legend says were drawn by the Devil and will summon him if used in the correct way.

Corso searches for information about the book and visits the owners of the other two copies to make direct comparisons. Along the way he meets the previous owner of Balkan's copy (Lena Olin) who is desperate to recover it, and keeps seeing a mysterious unnamed girl (Emmanuelle Seigner) who has a knack of turning up at the right moment to save him from danger. Corso discovers that only three engravings in each copy are genuine - it is necessary to bring them all together to achieve the desired effect. The bodies begin to pile up as rivals compete to obtain the nine genuine engravings, culminating in occult ceremonies.

This is described as a horror film, which surprises me as there is nothing particularly horrific - or even occult - about it. It is quite low-key and slow-paced, and is best regarded as a mystery. The only supernatural elements are a couple of gravity-defying tricks by the unnamed girl, and the very last scene which frankly left me baffled as to what it all meant. However, the film is stylish, looks good and is moderately entertaining; and, if nothing else appeals, male viewers can enjoy the sight of Olin and Seigner!

The fourth of the Pirates of the Caribbean films has Depp once again reprising his role as the iconic Captain Sparrow, although the two secondary stars of the earlier films (Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom) disappear and Penélope Cruz joins the crew as Sparrow's love interest. The only other memorable characters are Ian McShane as Blackbeard and the young mermaid Syrena, played rather fetchingly by Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey.

I don't have a lot to say about this one. It's just more of the same, but not a lot more. I expected Cruz to pair very well with Depp but her performance never takes off and there is zero chemistry between them. In fact, the entire cast seems subdued, as if they're not having much fun. Even Depp's performance (as usual, the main reason to watch the film) is toned down, and the film lacks the joie de vivre which made the earlier ones (especially the first) so enjoyable. I note that this film had a different director from the first three, Rob Marshall replacing Gore Verbinski, and apparently the budget didn't allow for as many special effects, both of which presumably contributed to the malaise.

The film finished with lots of dangling loose ends and two more sequels are reportedly planned, which just goes to prove (once more) that Hollywood can't see a dead horse without giving it a thorough flogging.

Friday 18 November 2011

Short Stories: Novice by James H Schmitz; The Eyes Have It by Randall Garrett

The Classic Science Fiction discussion group selects one short story a week (from those available free online) to read and discuss, as well as the monthly pair of novels. I don't usually read them because I spend so much time on a computer anyway that I don't like to read fiction on it as well, and I don't have an e-reader because I have so many paper books stacked up awaiting my attention. However, I happened to have the two stories above in paper anthologies, so I re-read them. Both stories were written in the 1960s and both are the first of series: the Telzey Amberdon and Lord Darcy stories respectively.

In Novice, Schmitz's far-future Telzey Amberdon is a teenage girl with very high-status parents who happens to have a genius level intelligence, remarkable maturity and competence, and nascent psi powers. Oh, and she's good-looking too. If this all sounds like someone you would hate, prepare to be surprised - Schmitz makes us like her and you'd need a heart of stone not to be cheering her on by the end of the story. Sent away on holiday with her sweetly poisonous aunt to a strange planet with only her pet giant cat of unknown species, Tick-Tock, as a friendly face, Telzey soon discovers that her aunt has hatched a plot to deprive her of her pet. For Tick-Tock is a native of the planet - a species now believed to be almost extinct - and is therefore subject to confiscation. But Telzey also discovers that the giant cats are far from extinct, and she becomes involved in a dangerous scheme to outwit her aunt and survive the close attention of the ferocious felines.

In complete contrast, the Lord Darcy tales are set on an alternate Earth of vaguely Victorian technology and even earlier social development in which France and the UK are one country, North America is still a colony and the nobility are very much in charge. Oh, and magic works and is openly practiced - provided that it is sanctioned by the church. Lord Darcy is a criminal investigator who puzzles out seemingly impossible crimes with the aid of his assistant, a magician who has all kinds of useful abilities. So these stories are in effect a mixture of Sherlock Holmes, magical fantasy and steampunk. The most famous of them is the full-length novel, Too Many Magicians, but there are also nine short stories, of which The Eyes Have It was the introductory tale, concerning the mysterious murder of a lecherous nobleman. Those interested in these stories should look for the 2002 publication, Lord Darcy, which includes all of the stories as well as the novel.

These two stories may appear to have nothing in common, but that's not the case - they are both huge fun to read, light and entertaining, and were very popular in their day, resulting in several sequels. They date from an altogether more innocent age of SFF, which is an important aspect of their charm.

Friday 11 November 2011

Climate Change News

Those who urge taking action to avert climate change have had a bad couple of years. First, there was "Climategate" - the hacking of damaging emails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, then the row over the use of a wildly inaccurate claim concerning the melting of Himalayan glaciers in a publication by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - the body tasked with reviewing and assessing research - and finally the failure of the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen to reach a meaningful international agreement on addressing global warming.

This triple blow seriously damaged the public perception of the seriousness of the threat from climate change. Even worse, the global financial crisis and resulting economic fallout have convinced many people that there are far more important and urgent problems to throw resources at. This has all combined to undermine political support, as most clearly demonstrated by the increasingly sceptical public statements of the Republican candidates for next year's US Presidential election.

However, there has been more encouraging news recently. Most notably, the conclusions of the Berkeley Earth Project, which was set up in the wake of Climategate to take a fresh look at the evidence. As reported by the BBC, the project was established by a noted climate change sceptic, University of California physics professor Richard Muller, with the help of funding from sources which included charitable foundations maintained by the Koch brothers, the billionaire US industrialists who have donated large sums to organisations lobbying against acceptance of man-made global warming.

Despite these unpromising circumstances, Professor Muller's team conducted an exhaustive analysis of all of the available data from the three major centres for climate research, whose work had been decried as unreliable and shoddy in climate sceptic circles: the collaboration between the UK Met Office and UEA's Climatic Research Unit; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Berkeley Earth Project finally concluded that the research and analyses carried out by these three groups was fundamentally correct.

"Our biggest surprise was that the new results agreed so closely with the warming values published previously by other teams in the US and the UK," said Prof Muller.

"This confirms that these studies were done carefully and that potential biases identified by climate change sceptics did not seriously affect their conclusions."

This is worth emphasising: a thorough scientific study, funded with the help of climate sceptics and headed by a scientist who was himself a climate change sceptic, has concluded that those scientists warning about climate change were right all along. This deserves all the publicity it can get.

Next came calls for tougher action on climate change from big business in the form of The Corporate Leaders Group, a network of nearly 200 major companies spread over 30 countries, as described here.

This stance was supported by the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change, representing more than $20 trillion in assets including banking giants HSBC and BNP Paribas, who argued that the governments which were acting quickly to implement tough climate policies would reap the biggest investments and the biggest rewards.

What Do We Know?

So what is the current state of scientific research into climate change? What is known and, of equal importance, not known? The New Scientist magazine has helpfully put together a simple guide to exactly that, here. To summarise very briefly:

We know that greenhouse gases are warming the planet, but we don't know how far the levels of these gases will rise.

We know that other pollutants are cooling the planet, but we don't know by how much.

We know that the planet is going to get a lot hotter, but we don't know how much hotter, nor how the climate will change in specific regions.

We know that the sea level is going to rise by many metres, but we don't know how quickly this will happen.

We know that there will be more floods and droughts, but we don't know whether there will be more hurricanes and the like.

Finally, we don't know how serious a threat global warming is to life, nor if and when "tipping points" (causing sudden accelerations in warming) will be reached.

It is of course frustrating that scientists cannot be more specific about what is going to happen where and when, but the massive complexity of the processes involved preclude this. Probably as a result, the public acceptance of the need for action - more specifically, the need for action which is costly now in order to stave off disaster later - is still not strong enough for most political leaders to take the action required. At the moment, the warming trends are steadily upwards, with the very limited reductions in carbon emissions achieved by the developed world swamped by the increasing industrialisation of the developing world - especially China and India - and the ever-growing global population which has now (more or less) reached seven billion and is projected to reach 9 or 10 billion by the middle of the century.

It is becoming ever more certain that we will not act effectively enough, quickly enough, to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to the extent needed to prevent global temperatures from rising to dangerous levels by the end of this century. Can anything else be done? The obvious answer is geoengineering - technical fixes to counteract the rise in greenhouse gases - and it may be significant that public acceptance of such an approach seems to be growing as described here. However, as I have already discussed in this article, there are serious problems with this approach.

The path our generation takes now will decide what sort of future the next few generations will experience. At the moment, there appear to be few grounds for optimism. When faced with difficult and painful decisions, people are very prone to go through several stages (as governments have been doing over the current international financial crisis):
1. Denying there's a problem.
2. Hoping that it will go away if it's ignored for long enough.
3. Hoping that something will come up which will make hard decisions unnecessary.
4. Finally, reluctantly, taking the minimum action after waiting for as long as possible.

The problem with this tried-and-tested approach to muddling through is that the climate has enormous inertia. By the time the need for action has become obvious to all, the climate changes will have gathered such momentum that they will quite possibly be unstoppable. Humanity needs to fasten its metaphorical seat belt - we're in for a very rough ride.

Friday 4 November 2011

Film: The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010)

Something different in the way of cinematic pleasure this time. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec is a French film (subtitled) based on a Franco-Belgian comic strip relating the varied fantastical adventures of Adèle (Louise Bourgoin) a resourceful young reporter and author.

The place is Paris, the time a hundred years ago. The plot concerns Adèle's attempts to find a way of curing her twin sister, who has been in a coma for five years following a freak accident. Her search involves an Indiana Jones-style escapade in Egypt to find and recover the mummy of a noted doctor to a pharaoh (whom she believes is the only person who might succeed in reviving her sister). She hopes that a scientist, Professeur Espérandieu, will be able to bring the mummy back to life - as the Professeur has developed a telepathic method for rousing the dead. Unfortunately, in Adèle's absence he has been practicing his skills and has managed to cause a pterodactyl to hatch from its egg in a museum and terrorise Paris, resulting in his arrest. So first Adèle has to spring him from prison, then get him to revive the mummy so it can treat her sister, but (needless to say) all does not go to plan. To make matters worse, a big-game hunter has been recruited to shoot the pterodactyl, but its fate is closely tied to that of the Professeur.

This film certainly dispels any notion that the French can't take a joke against themselves. Many of the characters are broad caricatures of French stereotypes, with only Adèle being played straight - if you can believe in a young woman who confidently overcomes all obstacles, including imminent execution, with remarkable style and sang-froid. This is a zany comedy (some might say bonkers) with a laugh in every scene, and is quite unlike anything else; The Mummy might be the closest I've seen, although in comparison that seems like a serious horror drama.

The film might best be summed up as "magnificently silly". It is intended to be the first of a trilogy, which I hope comes to pass: I'll be waiting in the queue to see the others.