Thursday 21 February 2013

Film: Looper (2012)

This time-travel drama received very good reviews so was on my "must-watch" list as soon as it became available.

Most of the film is set in 2044. Thirty years later, time travel had been invented and promptly made illegal. Which meant that criminals made use of it, for a bizarre purpose - the untraceable disposal of people they wanted to kill. They sent them back alive to 2044 at a prearranged time and place where they were promptly killed and disposed of by one of a group of killers known as loopers - all organised by a man from the future sent back to live in 2044. The loopers were well paid but there was a price: after thirty years they were sent back to be killed by their younger selves, a process known as "closing the loop".

This review contains major spoilers so if you prefer to be surprised, stop reading now - but do see the film if you can as it's exciting and intriguing, even though the logical structure doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

---------------------------MAJOR SPOILERS!-------------------------

The protagonist, Joe Simmons, is one of the loopers. He is played by two different actors: as a young man in 2044 by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and as an older man from 2074 by Bruce Willis. The inevitable happens and young Joe turns up for an execution to discover that old Joe is the target. He hesitates, allowing old Joe to escape - a dire crime for which he is pursued by the criminal gang. He goes on the hunt for old Joe, hoping to redeem himself, but when they do meet, matters become complicated.

Old Joe tells his younger self that a powerful and evil criminal known as the Rainmaker had taken over the 2074 underworld and was shutting down the time travel operation, closing all of the loops. He had discovered information about the Rainmaker's identity which meant that he had to be the adult version of one of three 10-year-old boys living in the area - and old Joe meant to kill all three of them to make sure that the Rainmaker never lived to maturity. One of the boys lives on an isolated farm with his mother (Emily Blunt), and young Joe gets to them first, discovering that the boy has powerful telekinetic abilities - and must be the future Rainmaker. However, young Joe becomes involved with the mother who believes that her son will be a force for good if she can bring him up properly. When old Joe arrives, his younger self realises that he is about to shoot the mother as she protects her son, which will result in the boy becoming the embittered Rainmaker. Too far away to intervene directly, young Joe shoots himself, thereby causing his older self to disappear.

On the face of it, Looper is a slick, exciting, unusual and quite intelligent thriller, but on reflection the problems begin to pile up. Put simply, the plot contains some illogical events and major paradoxes - something hinted at in the film itself when old Joe tells young Joe not to try to think about it. For a start, why "close the loop" by killing the older assassins? And if you're going to do that anyway, why have them killed by their younger selves rather than one of the other loopers? If, as a result of young Joe's suicide, old Joe had never existed, then why was young Joe at the farm, and what could have made him kill himself? There are probably quite a few more examples which more analytical viewers can come up with.

Paradoxes of this kind are what you always get when you have single-timeline time travel, and they make a nonsense of the whole plot. This is a very old-fashioned limitation, having been replaced long ago in SF by the notion of the multiverse - parallel worlds, with new ones forever being created at branching points, whenever events change. With this concept, there are no paradoxes, because changes in the past create a different future in parallel with what would have happened without the changes. There is a suggestion of this in the film, with an unexplained scene in which the arrival of old Joe in the past results in young Joe instantly killing him, but this is not followed up (unless I missed something - always possible).

Despite this, it is an intriguing film and one that I am likely to watch again sometime, if only to try to figure out exactly what is supposed to be happening!

Sunday 17 February 2013

The Deathworld trilogy, by Harry Harrison

I bought these books about forty years ago and hadn't read them for almost as long, so I was pleased when the first of them was chosen as the book of the month by the Classic Science Fiction discussion group. Since they are all very short by modern standards, only adding up to one average-sized modern novel between them, I read the two sequels as well.

Deathworld is set in a far-future universe in which humanity has colonised 30,000 worlds (with no mention of any alien civilisations) and features Jason dinAlt, a gambler with limited telekinetic powers which enable him to cheat. He is recruited and bankrolled by Kerk Pyrrus, a formidable native of the planet Pyrrus, to win a large sum of money to purchase weapons which the people on his planet need to survive. It emerges that Pyrrus is ferociously hostile to humanity; not just in its double gravity and violent extremes of weather and climate, but in a flora and fauna which keep evolving at a rapid rate to attack the settlers as viciously as possible. As a result the Pyrrans are formidable fighters, their whole lives geared to survival.

Bored with his existence, dinAlt is intrigued by what he hears and decides to travel to Pyrrus with Kerk. Surviving with some difficulty and a lot of help, he gradually realises that there is something odd going on and believes that humanity doesn't need to live in such a state of violent warfare with the planet's biota. However, the Pyrrans are so focused on survival that they have no time for his theories and dinAlt has to put his own life on the line to try to change the situation.

Like most heroes of contemporary SF, dinAlt regards himself as far superior to the rest of humanity, but his self-confidence takes a battering on Pyrrus where he struggles with the high gravity and is demonstrably inferior in fighting skills to the average eight-year old. His intelligence wins out over the brute force of the Pyrrans in the end, though. Read with modern eyes, the story has a certain allegorical feel - of a population whose own actions are changing their environment in ways which make it more hostile to themselves, but who are too wrapped up in their own way of life to want to make the necessary alterations. But Harrison wrote this long before concerns about climate change emerged.

Deathworld 2, originally titled The Ethical Engineer, directly continues the story with dinAlt on Pyrrus, from which he is abruptly kidnapped by Mikah, a representative of a group of religious fundamentalists who have decided to bring the now famous dinAlt to trial for his various earlier misdeeds as an example to others. However, Mikah's ship crashes on an isolated planet with a primitive human civilisation based on slavery. As might be expected, the resourceful dinAlt manages to cope with the situations he keeps finding himself in, while planning how to get off the planet.

This is a slightly strange sequel as dinAlt, whom we knew from the first book as someone whose only skill was as a psi-aided gambler, suddenly morphs into an engineer with a comprehensive knowledge of early technology and with no mention of psi powers at all. The story is full of arguments he has with Mikah, in which the merits of dinAlt's rationalist atheism are hammered home in a decidedly unsubtle way. This aspect of the book is not helped by the fact that Mikah is portrayed as a cartoonish parody of a blindly religious fanatic, totally incapable of coping with the real world. If this doesn't appeal, you can skip this book and go straight to the third volume without losing anything.

Deathworld 3 is something of a return to form, and to former issues. Jason dinAlt, once again on Pyrrus with his local girlfriend Meta, has a plan to offer the Pyrrans something other than perpetual war with the local flora and fauna. He has discovered a planet dubbed Felicity possessing valuable mineral resources which lie undeveloped because of the violent opposition of barbaric natives almost as ferocious as the Pyrrans. He recruits enough Pyrrans to take on the task but runs into far more problems than he expected. The fierce locals are led by Temuchin (a name borrowed straight from Earth history - it was the original name of the Mongol warlord Genghis Khan) who proves a hard nut to crack. But dinAlt eventually discovers a solution by reading up on ancient history.

I remembered the stories as fun reads; short, fast paced and entertaining, with a wry sense of humour, as Harrison novels usually are. That is still true, although they appear rather simplistic by modern standards. Despite this, they're still worth the time to read.

Friday 8 February 2013

Film: In Time (2011)

In Time has a classic SF plot by writer/director Andrew Niccol, set a century and a half into a dystopian future in which everyone stops ageing when they reach 25 and can potentially live forever. The catch is that the universal currency is not money but the minutes and hours of people's lives, known as "living time". Everyone has a clock/calendar built into their forearms which counts down in real time, and from which extra time is deducted whenever they purchase anything or transfer time to someone else; they can similarly add time by earning (or stealing) it. Run out of "living time" and you drop dead on the spot. Most people struggle to earn enough time to continue living day by day, especially as prices are kept rising (and wages falling) by the controlling class of super-rich, who genuinely can live forever - as long as they do nothing stupid. They live in luxurious secure zones which cost months of living time just to enter. The following review contains some minor spoilers.

Will Salas (well portrayed by Justin Timberlake, someone who's name is very familiar but whom I can't recall ever having seen before) is one of the poor, constantly at risk of running out of living time but a man of principle who shares out what he has among his friends. He helps a member of the rich who gets into trouble while slumming down-town, and finds himself with more living time than he has ever dreamed of. The questions are; what will he do with it, and can he avoid the attentions of local gang leader Fortis (Alex Pettyfer) and police "Timekeeper" Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy)?

Salas uses his new wealth to head uptown where he meets Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser), one of the richest and most powerful men in the world, and his daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) who is immediately attracted to the dangerous and exciting Salas. But what future can they find in the face of the powerful forces opposed to them, and can they do anything to mitigate the unfairness of the stratified society?

This film has echoes of others, most obviously Logan's Run in which everyone dies at the age of 30, but In Time has a darker and more adult feel, more reminiscent of Bladerunner and especially Gattaca. It isn't as good as those two, but it's still one of the better recent SF movies and well worth watching.

Saturday 2 February 2013

A High Shrill Thump: War Stories, edited by Juliana Rew

A collection of short SFF stories on the theme of 'War,' published in 2012 by Third Flatiron Publishing .

The Man Who Couldn't Die by David L. Felts. A new recruit finds himself fighting a war as part of a Marine squad which never suffered any casualties; but there is a price to be paid.

Comrade at Arms by Gustavo Bondoni. The Etruscans are getting squeezed between the Romans and the Eluveitie, but they have a special weapon; the undead fight for them. That's a huge advantage - most of the time.

Angel by K. R. Cairns. The female warriors are sent into battle from their orbiting home, dropping cleansing fire on their unseen enemies on the ground. But when one of them crash-lands, perspectives change.

Grins and Gurgles (Flash Fiction): The Rocketeer by John Harrower. A brief surreal snapshot written as a parody of Biggles; an RFC rocket-man hunts the Red Baron.

Refugees by James S. Dorr. A medieval army advances on the enemy castle, driving refugees before them. But not all of the refugees help their cause.

The Home Front by David Turner. A soldier returns home from the war, but he's not a fighter - his job is to dream of future events. The problem is that his dreams include his private life too.

The Fixer by Jack Skelter. Life in a Vietnamese prison was no fun for a US prisoner of war, until help came from an unexpected quarter. A light and humorous tale.

A Childproof War by Lon Prater. An alien Early Death plague kills all human beings as soon as they reach puberty, so the children continue the war. But what are they fighting for?

The Frontline Is Everywhere by Michael Trudeau. A bizarre tale of the relationships between neighbours who build bomb shelters in preparation for the Big One.

Half a Century Later at a Mid-Earth Pub by Tom Sheehan. A poetic story of an annual meeting of Korean War veterans.

Homeland Security by Brenda Kezar. Local residents find a novel but somewhat dubious way to limit the cross-border incursions and make money at the same time.

In the Blink of an Eye by Nick Johnson. The grim aftermath of a nuclear war, in which only a few can be saved.

I Think I Won by David J. Williams. A different aftermath of a nuclear war, with the descendents of the survivors fighting on in a devastated North America.

This is an eclectic mix of stories covering all periods and including SF, fantasy and horror genres, also ranging from the humorous to the unremittingly grim: the theme of warfare is their only link. They are also all quite short, limiting the scope for character and plot development. It is difficult for me to pick favourites from such a collection, but (unusually for me) the horror story by Bondoni made the strongest impression.