Friday 29 June 2012

Film: Innerspace (1987)

For some reason I hadn't seen this film before now. I suspect when I heard about the plot I confused it with the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, which I do recall watching several decades ago. Both films feature people in small submarines being miniaturised to such an extent that the submarines can be injected into a person and be navigated around the body. The main difference is that Innerspace is a comedy.

Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid) is a gung-ho pilot who has volunteered to man the submarine on its first exploratory voyage, intended to be in an animal. However, a criminal organisation tries to seize the technology, as a result of which the submarine is randomly injected into a Jack Putter (Martin Short) a hypochondriac wimp. Pendleton is able to tap into Putter's vision and hearing, and to communicate with him. What follows is a protracted two-way chase, as Pendleton/Putter, aided by Pendleton's somewhat confused girlfriend Lydia Maxwell (Meg Ryan), try to recover the part of the technology stolen by the criminals in order to reverse Pendleton's miniaturisation, while the criminals are hunting Putter in order to obtain the submarine for themselves. Meanwhile, the air in the submarine is running out.

There is lots of humour, mostly resulting from Pendleton's efforts to stir the terrified Putter into bold action, and some rather mixed-up romance too. The "feel" of the film is somewhat old-fashioned, more like the 1960s than the 1980s and quite different from anything made today. All in all, it’s a couple of hours of pleasant if undemanding entertainment, and recommended if you've not seen it already.
I tried reading Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson over the past week or two. This was first published in 1992 and was well regarded, being nominated for two British SF awards, but I hadn't come across it before. It was very cutting edge in its subject matter, featuring a dystopian future in which democratic control in the USA has mainly been replaced by a patchwork of territories controlled by organised gangs linked to big business franchises. People spend a lot of time in the Metaverse, a virtual world in which interaction is by user-chosen avatars, and the two settings run in parallel in the novel. The title comes from a new computer virus which is causing havoc in the Metaverse.

The story is very clever and packed with good ideas, but I found it heavy going and each time I picked up the book found I had to flip back some pages to refresh my memory as to what had happened or who characters were - always a bad sign. I eventually made it past halfway, but then asked myself the three crucial questions: Am I really keen to find out what happens next? Do I really care what happens to the characters? Do I want to spend another week or so on this book? The answer to all three was "No", so I stopped reading. What put me off the book? I think it was the lack of both a coherent, gripping story and sympathetic characters. The author seems to have been so busy developing his ideas of life in his future world that he forgot the essential point of a novel in any genre: it should tell a story, one which seizes the imagination of readers and keeps them turning the pages to discover what happens next, while really caring about what happens to the characters.

Friday 22 June 2012

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

John Wyndham wasn’t just the best-known British SF author of the 1950s – he was one of the best known authors in fiction. It may be hard to recall, but in the UK SF used to be a lot more mainstream than it is now. In my childhood, Jules Verne was still very popular (I still have my ancient copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) as was H.G.Wells (The War of the Worlds, among others). In the 1930s, Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984 raised the literary status of SF to the highest level. In the 1950s, Fred Hoyle, the most famous astronomer of his day, wrote The Black Cloud and Ossian's Ride, and in the 1960s went on to co-write the script for the Andromeda TV series. One of the most popular radio series in the 1950s was Journey into Space (I can still recall our family clustering around the radio to hear the weekly instalments) while Quatermass was a successful 1950s TV series.

Wyndham’s novel The Day of the Triffids (published in 1951) therefore met a receptive audience and created something of a sensation at the time. Most people seemed to have read it and everyone knew what a triffid was, just as they know what a Dalek is today. As was pointed out by another reader on a discussion forum, some people even now (myself included, I realised) still jokingly refer to any large, strange and imposing plant as a "triffid". Nowadays Dr Who and the Harry Potter series are just as well known, but they differ in two important respects: they are primarily aimed at children, and they are fantasies rather than SF (I suspect that Tolkien was partly responsible for that). In the 1950s, SF in the UK was mainstream adult entertainment rather than the niche interest it has become.

Triffids was followed by several other best-sellers by Wyndham, especially The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed exceptionally well in the UK in 1960 as The Village of the Damned, with a poorly-regarded Hollywood remake in 1995) but Triffids has survived better than the others. I hadn’t read it since the 1960s, so I was interested to see how it stood up today. One warning: this review contains some spoilers in describing the plot, but most readers will probably be aware of them anyway.

The first point to strike me was the quality of the writing. This isn’t just fiction, this is literature, and the care with words and descriptions plus the perceptive observations spread throughout the book all stand out from the great majority of SF. No wonder it had a good critical reception. However, in this case "literary" does not imply "slow and unexciting", as it tends to today. The initial chapter, when the protagonist Bill Masen is in hospital having been temporarily blinded, is chilling in its evocation of the helplessness and dawning horror as he realises that something is terribly wrong with the world. This is emphasised by the story being told in the first person, making his emotions all the more intensely felt.

I had a more negative response to the next two chapters which told the story of the triffids. Frankly, this pushed my credulity well over my limit. The potential dangers of genetically modified plants are of course just as topical today, and I would have no problems believing in a commercially valuable crop which was also dangerous to be around due to poisonous thorns or some such. But plants which detect movement with sufficient precision to be able to strike accurately with a poisonous lash from several feet away? Which can pick up their roots and walk? Demonstrate collective intelligence and organisation? Communicate with each other via a drumming code (how did they devise and learn that)? Know that the eyes are the most vulnerable target in a human despite having no vision of their own? Sorry, but such an assembly of impossibilities, accidently emerging in one plant as a side-effect of developing edible-oil quality, would be met with derision if a modern author presented such a concept. Most modern SF might not be as well written, but its attempts at such developments tend to make more scientific sense.

In fact, I am rather baffled by the need to include the triffids at all. The conventional guidance to SF authors wanting to base their stories on some change taking place in the present day is that they should only introduce one “MacGuffin”; one key element, the consequences of which can then be explored. Wyndham has two right at the start: the triffids plus the intense atmospheric flashes which blind nearly all of humanity. I can’t help thinking that the concept of the triffids probably occurred to him first, and that he invented the global blinding in order to enable the triffids to become dangerous. If the global blinding had occurred to him first, the consequences of that would surely have provided quite enough drama to fill a novel without needing the impossible plants at all. In fact, I suspect that without the triffids, the story would have been even more chillingly realistic, and thereby even easier for the readers to relate to. On the other hand, the triffids are what the book is best remembered for, so perhaps he was being clever after all.

The triffids and their origin described, the tale then returns to Masen’s account of survival against the odds, which continues to grip the reader throughout the book. This is one of the classic “what would you do in his place?” novels, and the story doesn’t skate over the harrowing moral dilemmas about whether to try to help the blind survivors, knowing that it would only postpone the inevitable. Masen has great difficulty in casting aside his social conditioning to accept the new reality and change his attitudes and behaviour accordingly. In fact, the story isn’t really about SF at all, in the sense of focusing on bold futures full of gee-whiz technology and zooming rocket ships, as much SF was at the time. This is really about what it is to be human, and how people react so variously when placed in a situation which, while appalling, was not so strange that readers could not easily relate to it. This was, don’t forget, written in the early years of the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear annihilation was already rearing its head. Arguably, the disaster which befell the world in Wyndham’s story was even more disconcerting than atomic war would have been; the cities left untouched, apparently fully functioning, yet populated almost entirely by ordinary people whose lives were steadily unravelling and who were certain to be dead before long. The lethal disease which sweeps through the city, horrifying in other circumstances, comes as something of a relief since the alternative for most was a slow death by starvation.

One interesting aspect of the novel is that the female characters are far more than props for the men, as was so often the case at this time. They are drawn just as strongly, in both positive and negative roles; the characterisation of both genders is complex and rings true. One of the male characters rants furiously at the traditionally helpless attitude of a young woman when faced with vital technology - how to switch on a domestic generator to provide electric power - and the essential need in the changed situation for all of the sighted survivors to lose their ignorance and dependence. Even in this instance, the author has the woman responding with some spirit.

That also made me realise that we are even more vulnerable to a global disaster today than the world was in 1951 - we have become highly dependent on a sophisticated web of infrastructure, communications, trade and just-in-time deliveries, and have even less idea of how everything works and what to do if it stops. To give one detailed example of our vulnerability, much of the tinned and dried food which could be expected to last for months or years has been replaced by chilled or frozen products which will start spoiling only a few hours after the power has failed.

As ever with novels from an earlier age, there are some unintentional glimpses into aspects of the past. The universality of cigarette smoking is a common one, but what struck me this time was the wonderment of the survivors at the clearness of the air in London, unaffected by coal smoke and fumes. That reminded me that the first Clean Air Act, which enforced the use of smokeless fuel in some urban areas, was not passed until 1956, and followed London's "Great Smog" of the winter of 1952/3, during which the capital (known colloquially at the time as "The Smoke") was occasionally immobilised by zero visibility and some 20,000 people were estimated to have died from the resulting respiratory illnesses.

The reasons for the runaway success of this novel are clear, and they still make it a compelling read today: the writing quality, combined with the way in which the reader is drawn into and fully engaged in the developing disaster, empathising with realistic and sympathetic characters. I know someone who was so horrified by the story as a young woman that she has never wanted to read it since, nor see any of the screen versions. Yet she watches modern disaster films like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow without any concerns at all, because they’re so unrealistic and superficial by comparison. In conclusion, The Day of the Triffids is an excellent, adult story which fully deserves its place in any list of classic science fiction. It’s just a pity about the triffids…!

Friday 15 June 2012

Interzone 240

Five short stories in the May/June issue this time:

Beasts by Elizabeth Bourne, illustrated by Martin Hanford. A fantasy set in France during the Revolution, in which a young mother finds herself trapped in a chateau with a decidedly beastly inhabitant and a garden of roses which bleed when cut. A strange but rich tale, one likely to stick in the memory.

The Indignity of Rain by Lavie Tidhar, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A grubby future spaceport in what was once Tel Aviv, from which spacecraft travel through the solar system. A grandmother looks after her curiously gifted grandchild who awaits the return of his father from space, a man she once knew. More like an excerpt than a complete story.

Seeking Captain Random by Vylar Kaftan, illustrated by Kurt Huggins and Zelda Devon. The intense dreams of a comic-book designer keep being interrupted by an anomalous figure who has no place in the story arc. Who is he, and what does his appearance portend? His friend discovers that these questions gather a greater urgency after an unexpected turn of events. Mysterious to the end.

Bloodcloth by Ray Cluley, illustrated by Jim Burns. A child's view of a dystopian world which is dominated by the demands of a very strange bloodsucking creature. More horror than SF.

A Body Without Fur by Tracie Welser. An expedition to a new planet discovers a humanoid race with some strange customs and attitudes, but the humans' main problem is the emotional baggage they bring with them. The nearest of this group to a traditional SF story, albeit a rather downbeat one.

I'm not sure about picking a favourite from this group - none of them really struck me as one I'd want to read again, although perhaps Kaftan's tale appealed the most.

The reviews section includes an interview with Nancy Kress along with a review of her novel After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall. Her name is very familiar to me but, on checking, I have nothing of hers on my shelves and don't seem to have read anything by her. Judging by the review, her new novel may not be the most cheerful story but sounds very intriguing - the plot reminded me of Varley's Millennium, in which people from a future in which humanity is threatened with dying out, travel into the past to kidnap people who were due to die soon anyway. One to put on my ever-lengthening list. Other reviews include new books from Alastair Reynolds and John Meaney, which have to be worth a look, and yet another variation on the Carter on Mars stories: Jane Carver of Waar, by Nathan Long, which sounds like fun. Which reminds me: I have been re-reading more of the Garrett/Heydron Gandalara Cycle, and must post those reviews.

The film reviews section includes several talked-about movies including Avengers Assemble, The Hunger Games, John Carter and Battleship. The Carter review is kinder than the usual scathing dismisssal of this film, reinforcing my view that it's something I want to watch anyway. The DVD section contains a remarkable feat of endurance - a review of the complete Six Million Dollar Man collection: three TV movies plus 100 episodes!

Friday 8 June 2012

Embassytown by China Miéville

I am slowly working my way through Miéville's canon, this being the fourth I have started (although only the third I have finished - see my review of The City and the City). His stories are remarkably varied and he seems able to ignore the supposed rule that no SFF book stands a chance of being published unless it is part of a series which will hook the readers and guarantee continuing demand. Having said that, his tales (the ones I've read so far, anyway) do have one thing in common: the most important feature of them is not one of the characters, but a city. And not just any ordinary city, but one which is fantastical in some way, such as the baroque fantasy settlements in Un Lun Dun and Perdido Street Station or the bizarrely divided one in The City and the City.

Embassytown is no different, the city of this name being the only human settlement on Arieka, a planet populated by enigmatic aliens who have permitted Embassytown's establishment within their own city. The Aliens, known as Hosts, are masters of biotech and everything they make and use is alive, including their buildings. Arieka's atmosphere is poisonous to humans but the Hosts have engineered living atmosphere machines called aeoli, which maintain a blanket of breathable air over Embassytown.

Dealing with the Hosts is very difficult because of their unique Language, which they are born already able to speak. They have two voices which they combine when speaking, and are unable to understand any speech which is not made in the same way. The only humans who can communicate with them are pairs of identical clones, each pair being regarded as one Ambassador, who are trained to think and speak together.

Avice Benner Cho is a native of Embassytown and one of the few who had been given permission to leave - in her case to become an Immerser, a spaceship pilot. Now she has returned, in time to witness a remarkable event; the arrival of a new and very different Ambassador who has a dramatic effect on the Hosts. The story follows Cho's attempts to understand what is going on and prevent disaster, in the face of opposition from both the human and Host populations.

The story gets off to a slow start and it took me a few days to get into, but the pace gradually accelerates and I read the last half in one sitting. The setting and the plot are both novel and intriguing, as is usually the case with Miéville. The aliens are very definitely alien in both appearance and behaviour, although I never did form a clear mental picture of exactly what they looked like. On the downside, none of the human characters made a great impression on me. Despite this, the book is well worth the read, although it has failed to displace The City and the City as, by far, my favourite by this author.

Friday 1 June 2012

Film: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

What a strange film this is! It is set in an alternative 1939 in which mercenary fighter pilot "Sky Captain" Joe Sullivan (Jude Law) apparently defends New York single-handedly while an evil scientist called Totenkopf (well, who wouldn't be evil given a name like that?) is plotting the end of the world.

After flying robots kidnap his geeky assistant and leave a trail of destruction through New York, Sullivan, accompanied by former girlfiend and persistent reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) flies to Nepal in his Curtis P-40 (which incidentally can fly underwater…don't ask) in search of the origin of the robots. There they are aided by another of Sullivan's former girlfriends, played by a decidedly kinky Angelina Jolie - in skin-tight black leather with an eye-patch to match - as the commander of a huge British flying aircraft carrier (I told you, don't ask!) as they try to thwart Totenkopf's plans.

I find it hard to know what to make of all this. The silly plot seems straight from an adolescent 1930s comic strip and the acting is unrealistic - it could hardly be otherwise, as they try to recreate a make-believe Biggles-like world in which handsome heroes and their debonaire girlfriends stroll into terrible danger with a light-hearted quip and are completely unflappable whatever happens. The result is that the actors don't appear to be taking it at all seriously and the whole film basically seems to be a spoof, although there's no obvious humour in it (apart from Paltrow's reactions when she finds out about Jolie…).

On the upside, it looks terrific with a wonderful 1930s feel packed with Art Deco iconography, although the heavy sepia tinting makes some of it hard to see. The "advanced technology" reminds me of Bruce McCall's humorous drawings of fantasy ships, aircraft, cars and buildings of the period (collected in his book Zany Afternoons - one of my favourites).

Essentially, the film has huge style but very little substance. Is it worth watching? I'm still trying to work that out. I expect that this is one which some people will love and others hate, although having said that, I'm somewhere in the middle. I gather it failed at the box office despite good reviews, but I can imagine it acquiring minor cult status in the future.