Saturday 27 December 2014

Inferno by Dan Brown

Ever since he hit the international all-time best-seller list with The Da Vinci Code in 2003,  Dan Brown has enjoyed a string of successes. Two of his earlier works (Digital Fortress and Deception Point) are classified as techno-thrillers and loosely fall into the near-future SF category, but the four best sellers (the others being Angels and Demons, The Lost Symbol and now Inferno) are all written to the same formula.

They are mystery thrillers which involve some mix of international conspiracies, ancient history and mythology (the two sometimes confused), codes and puzzles, archaeology, art, and religion and/or secret societies. The also all feature the character of Robert Langdon, who has his own Wiki entry in which he is described as "a Harvard University professor of religious iconology and symbology (a fictional field related to the study of historic symbols, which is not methodologically connected to the actual discipline of Semiotics)". Langdon is invariably thrown into danger as he is drawn in to investigating some mystery or curious event in his field, and battles to discover what is going on, inevitably with the assistance of an attractive but also strong and capable woman.

The stories are all fast-paced with the action concentrated into a 24-hour period, emphasised by the use of a large number of short chapters, each finishing on some point of tension or revelation which encourages the reader to keep turning the pages to discover what happens next. His plots are not really about right vs wrong, but good vs evil – and the more spectacularly and theatrically evil is the villain, the better. Their appeal lies in the combination of baroque, colourful fantasy against a real and generally well-researched background.

Inferno follows the same groove, but the focus of the plot this time (revealed early in the story) is on Malthusianism; the belief that if the human population kept growing unchecked the eventual result would be mass starvation. These ideas lost credibility as one agricultural revolution after another enabled food production to keep up with the explosive growth in world population, but many still believe that this cannot go on indefinitely because of natural constraints such as the area of fertile land (being reduced in many areas by soil exhaustion or erosion), the supply of fresh water, and what are predicted to be the mainly harmful effects for agriculture of climate change. Transhumanism – the use of science to enhance human capabilities – also makes an appearance.

The plot begins with Langdon waking in a hospital bed, with no recollection of the past two days. Much of the story concerns his efforts to find out what is going on as he is hunted by a diverse and colourful cast of characters but, even when he has straightened that out, there are major upsets, twists and turns in the story, right to the unexpected climax. In my view the author makes too much use of deliberate misdirection to fool the reader into believing one thing, only to produce a different perspective some time afterwards, and some of the events which are employed to achieve this effect are highly contrived and even less believable than the rest of the plot.

One of the attractions of Dan Brown's works is the emphasis on a sense of place, and his stories are packed with intriguing detail about cities, buildings and their history. Inferno is mainly set in Florence, and though I have visited the city I learned only when reading this story about the Vasaro Corridor, a high-level enclosed passage running for a kilometre through the city, built in the sixteenth century so that an unpopular ruler could travel in safety between two palaces. It is typical of the author to incorporate such elements into his stories; who doesn't love the idea of such passages and tunnels, especially if they actually exist?

Brown's writing style has (rightly in my view) been criticised as clumsy, with superficial characterisation and lots of infodumps but, while no-one would ever read him for stylishness, either I have got used to that or he has improved somewhat since I didn't find these issues quite so much of a problem in Inferno. In his Wiki entry Brown is quoted as saying "I do something very intentional and specific in these books. And that is to blend fact and fiction in a very modern and efficient style, to tell a story. There are some people who understand what I do, and they sort of get on the train and go for a ride and have a great time, and there are other people who should probably just read somebody else." I think that's a fair self-assessment. I have to be in the right mood to read a Brown novel. Inferno sat in my reading pile for over a year, until I felt like some fast-paced, undemanding, and mildly informative escapism; but when I finally picked it up, I was not disappointed.

Saturday 20 December 2014

Films: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013), and The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

I reviewed Part 1 of The Hobbit in July this year, in which I said the following:

Although I recalled the general plot outline of The Hobbit well enough most of the details were fuzzy, so you needn't expect a nerdish analysis of how faithful the film is to the book.  The production is superb and the film of high quality throughout, which is no more than I expected from Peter Jackson. Martin Freeman is excellent in the title role of the comfortable, middle-aged hobbit reluctantly persuaded into go on a dangerous adventure with a wizard and a bunch of pugnacious dwarves. The film is a visual feast and has a great deal to enjoy. I liked the restraint shown in building up the suspense concerning the dragon Smaug, only shown partly, in brief glimpses.

Unlike LOTR, in which 1,000 pages of novel were crammed into nine hours of filming, The Hobbit is a simple tale of well under 300 pages yet is stretched over a similar running time. One of the consequences is that some of the scenes are too extended. By the end, I did get tired of the endless running battles with Orcs and Wargs, and feel that the film would have been better for some judicious editing to reduce its length. However, I am still looking forward to the next episode.

Rather to my surprise, I enjoyed the second film more than the first. I usually find that middle films of trilogies suffer through having no proper beginning or ending, but didn't find that a problem here. There is less emphasis on scene-setting, and I did not get the same impression of scenes being over-extended; the story rattles along at a good pace and with a fair amount of variety. The dragon, seen in all its glory, is a marvellous creation, fully living up to expectations. Martin Freeman consolidates his solid performance as the reluctant hero and there are also notable performances from Richard Armitage as Thorin and Evangeline Lilly as the elf Tauriel (a character who isn't in the book, but I'm certainly not complaining). Orlando Bloom reprises his LOTR role of Legolas the elf, and Ian McKellen makes an impressive Gandalf. The film finishes on a note of high drama as Smaug flies to Laketown, setting up the final episode.


Now that I've located a nearby IMAX that's convenient to drive to, I travelled to see the final episode in all its 3D glory. It continues immediately from where the second film ended, with Smaug's attack on Laketown, then spends most of the rest of the time on the Battle of the Five Armies, as the title suggests. It is not, however, all about fighting. There is a strong focus on the growing madness of Thorin, more also on the rather unlikely added romantic sub-plot featuring the elf Tauriel and the dwarf Kili (but again, no complaints; Tauriel is definitely the girl you want by your side should you happen to encounter any stray bands of orcs in your neighbourhood), and perhaps not enough of the humorous scenes involving the down-to-earth Bilbo Baggins. Cate Blanchett is magnificent – she was born to play Galadriel – and it was good to see Christopher Lee as Saruman.

Having said that, the battle is very dramatic and varied, with some intriguing monsters on show, although I had a problem in reconciling the serried ranks of drilled elvish warriors with the magical display of agility in combat by the principal elves – the two didn't seem to belong to the same culture. The 3D is really good in this film; it is subtle enough not to be obvious, without things leaping out of the screen at you, but adds a depth to the view which is definitely worthwhile.

One oddity caught my attention concerning pronunciation. For more than half a century I have assumed that Smaug was pronounced "smorg" and Sauron was "sore-ron", but in the film these are "smowg" and sow-ron" respectively.

To summarise the series, while purists will grumble that the film is merely "based on" the book and adds quite a few plot elements, it is close enough to what I remembered and adheres to the spirit of Tolkien's story. Definitely one which fantasy fans should not miss, unless you are allergic to Middle Earth. Now I must watch The Lord of the Rings again, for the first time since that series was released.

Saturday 13 December 2014

Deepsix by Jack McDevitt

Set in the same universe as The Engines of God (reviewed here last January ) but twenty years later, Deepsix has only one character from the earlier story; spacecraft pilot Priscilla Hutchins (Hutch). Despite this the focus is not particularly on her, with various people acting as viewpoint characters as the book progresses. The plots of the two novels are unconnected but similar in that both feature apocalyptic events with system-wide effects; in this case, a wandering gas giant on a collision course with an Earth-type planet dubbed Deepsix. The planet, in the middle of an ice age, had scarcely been explored following a disastrous first visit a couple of decades earlier when the exploration team suffered heavy casualties from hostile wildlife. Spaceships with both scientists and tourists gather in the system to observe the gigantic collision, only for closer inspection of the planet to reveal previously unsuspected evidence of a former civilisation, prompting visits to the surface in a last-ditch attempt to collect information.

This is, of course, where things start to go wrong, with people becoming trapped on the planet and time running out. The discovery of a startling alien artifact in the system, far more advanced than the remains on the planet, adds yet more complexity and the tension ratchets up steadily as the inescapable deadline looms ever-closer.

As I observed in my previous review, McDevitt isn't the most stylish of writers and has each new character being accompanied by his or her own biographical infodump. Even so I found myself getting confused between which ships' captains were in charge of which ships and what role they had to play; a little reinforcement from time to time would have been helpful. McDevitt also seems rather obsessed with the nastiness of coordinated attacks by lots of small, vicious animals. Such an attack took place in TEoG in an unnecessary scene that did not advance the plot, and Deepsix begins with a similar event.

Despite these gripes, this is an intriguing read from the start and becomes unputdownable as the tension mounts; the author has a wide-screen imagination and can certainly tell a story. This one didn't appeal to me quite as much as the earlier book which had a galactic-scale mystery to be solved, but it is still an entertaining if undemanding read.

Saturday 6 December 2014

Interzone 255

The author interview in this issue of the SFF magazine is with Hannu Rajaniemi, author of the Jean de Flambeur trilogy: The Quantum Thief, The Fractal Prince and The Causal Angel. I'd not heard of this author before but the stories, set in a post-singularity universe, sound like an intriguing mixture of space opera, people with god-like powers, and virtual reality. I am hesitant about buying too many books from new (to me) authors these days since I already have such a vast reading pile that I wonder if I'll ever have time to get through it, let alone re-read my many old favourites, but this series might be worth trying.

There's another interesting review of The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit by Graham Joyce, another author new to me despite being a multi-award winner, probably because he specialised in fantasy and horror. Sadly he recently died at the age of only 60, his obituary featuring elsewhere in the magazine. The Peripheral, a new book by William Gibson, is also favourably reviewed.

The screen reviews include a couple of adaptations of stories by famous authors: Predestination (Robert Heinlein) and Radio Free Albemuth (P. K. Dick – again!) to which the film-makers have apparently been unusually faithful, at least in spirit.

The atmospheric SF scene on the cover is Sky Burial ♯3 by Wayne Haag.

Must Supply Own Work Boots by Malcolm Devlin, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A future in which construction work is carried out by mechanically-enhanced workmen with their physiology and nervous systems altered accordingly. But as each new technical generation of enhancement makes the previous workers obsolete, what happens to them?

Bullman and the Wiredling Mutha by R M Graves. A post-apocalyptic London in which gang warfare involves some strangely altered individuals. A brief story told by one of them, the Bullman, as he prepares to fight a battle against a mysterious, deadly Wiredling, but much more is going on than he is aware of.

The Calling of Night's Ocean by Thana Niveau, illustrated by Martin Hanford. A human researcher and a dolphin attempt to communicate with each other, a story told from alternating viewpoints. Success brings unforeseen consequences.

Finding Waltzer-Three by Tim Major, illustrated by Wayne Haag. An expedition finds a long-lost spacecraft, but the fate of the crew causes consternation.

Oubliette by E. Catherine Tobler, illustrated by Wayne Haag. Aphelion - a vast, partially ruined but still inhabited space station; Imogen, a visitor on an undefined mission; Zo, a long-dead religious hermit but still somehow a presence; Louis, a streetwise boy. These all interact in an atmosphere of mystery which obscures what is happening.

Mind the Gap by Jennifer Dornan-Fish. The development of an artificial intelligence as seen from the viewpoint of the AI trying to extend its understanding of humanity – but it already knows too much.

Monoculture by Tom Greene, illustrated by Richard Wagner. Another post-apocalyptic future in which the few survivors of natural humanity – ferals – coexist with a community of clones who make some curious demands, as seen from different viewpoints.

A varied collection this time, in setting, plot and style, with my favourites being the atmospheric Oubliette and the intriguing Monoculture. It would be nice from time to time to read something optimistic or amusing, but SFF writers seem to be a dour lot these days.

Saturday 29 November 2014

Film: Transcendence (2014)

Yet another film in which Christopher Nolan had a hand (albeit only as executive producer), so I was looking forward to this. To sum up; I found Transcendence had some good ideas but disappointing execution.

SPOILER WARNING: read no further if you want to watch the film, as this review contains spoilers, starting with a plot summary.

The focus is on Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a genius working on the development of AIs (artificial intelligences), who is fatally injured in an attack by modern-day luddites opposed to the development of such technology. Before he dies, his wife and fellow researcher Evelyn (Rebecca Hall, very good as usual) and his colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany) upload his mind into a powerful computer. The rest of the film contains multiple plot threads, as the disembodied Will Caster (surely a case of nominative determinism!) gradually extends his reach and power across the internet from a massive underground HQ he creates in a desert town, dramatically pushing forward the boundaries of science. The FBI becomes concerned with his increasing power and joins forces with the luddites to attack the HQ, while Evelyn, who is having increasing doubts about whether the uploaded Will is still her husband or a different being with Will's memories, is being tempted to join them. The climactic decision of the plot is whether or not Will's enemies should upload a computer virus that will destroy him, but at the same time bring about the collapse of our technological civilisation.

First, all credit to the film makers for acknowledging that these developments would be spread over several years rather than within the few days that Hollywood usually assumes that anything important takes, and for exploring some of the existential issues around the nature of a human mind uploaded to a computer. However, these genuine concerns become rather obscured by some silly sub-plots when Will's advanced medical science is able not only to cure people's ailments and immediately repair their bodies, but at the same time make them super-strong, and at the same time give him the power to take over their minds and control them. He also acquires the power to instantly repair any damaged equipment (or to destroy his enemies' weapons) by some sketchily explained means. In one ludicrous later scene a rag-tag band of luddites and FBI agents launch an attack on the vast underground complex using one ancient howitzer and a mortar. Fortunately, the final scenes do redeem the film to some extent.

There are genuine issues about AIs in general and uploading human minds into computers (should that ever be possible) in particular. I briefly explore some of the latter in my article On Immortality on this blog (link in the column on the left). Transcendence has a stab at some of them and is worth watching, but a really adult drama focusing on these issues is yet to be made.