Saturday 27 September 2014

The Lost Fleet: Fearless by Jack Campbell

I reviewed Dauntless, the first of Jack Campbell's Lost Fleet series, in May this year, and thought well of it: "The result is highly impressive: a gripping page-turner of a tale in which Campbell puts to very good use his experience as a US naval officer, bringing the ring of authenticity to his hero's command problems and meticulous accuracy to his description of the complexities of fighting a space battle in which the distances involved are so great that enemy actions can only be observed some (constantly varying) time after they have happened."

Fearless continues the story of the revived hero, John Geary, controversially put in charge of the Alliance fleet deep in enemy territory with the task of getting as much of it home as he can. Cue lots more of the same: detailed considerations of strategic and tactical options and gripping space battles. There really aren't any new elements included in the story, just a continuation of Geary's complex and developing relationship with Co-President Rione, and the dissatisfaction of some of his starship captains boiling over into mutiny with the arrival of a new catalyst.

My previous reservations about the author's writing weaknesses remain: "The total focus on Captain Geary's viewpoint and command problems is unrelieved by any other elements; it's a bit like a meal which is all meat and no veg. Furthermore, although Geary's personality is clearly drawn, there are no physical descriptions of him or anyone else in the book, other to say whether they are male or female, and look young or old.  This gives no guidance to the reader's imagination in conjuring up mental pictures of the scenes".

Furthermore, I am already becoming a little weary of Geary; the way he never puts a foot wrong, always finds exactly the right words, and invariably wins every battle, usually by annihilating the enemy while suffering minimal losses. Despite this, Fearless is addictively exciting and I read it quickly. I already have the next volume on my reading pile but I'm not sure how many more I'll want to read unless the author injects some variety into the stories.

Saturday 20 September 2014

Film: Gravity (2013)

When Gravity hit the cinemas I was very keen to follow the advice of the critics and see it not just in 3D but also on the IMAX screen. Even people who generally disliked 3D acknowledged that this was one film which was made for it, and that the visual spectacle should best be appreciated on the giant screen. For one reason or another I was unable to get to the cinema for three weeks, and when I eventually sat down to book my seats I was very disappointed to discover that the run at my local IMAX had just ended. I still can't understand the thinking behind this; the IMAX schedule wasn't exactly overcrowded (just one showing per day) and the film remained available on the ordinary screen in the same cinema for several more weeks, showing several times a day. However, I couldn't be bothered to travel to the cinema for a second-rate experience, so I didn't see it. Now that it's on DVD, I decided to watch it at home to see what all the fuss was about.

The plot of the film is of course very straightforward and with only two characters of significance it must be one of the simplest screenplays ever written. That enabled the director to focus on what the film was really all about – the experience of being in space. I did think that the plot was rather far-fetched – would the Hubble telescope, and the International Space Station, and a fictional Chinese space station, really all be so conveniently close together in matching orbits? And the debris storm was supposed to have taken out the communication satellites as well – but many of those are in geocentric orbits some 36,000 km up and would hardly have been affected by the same incident that hit the various stations at around 600 km. However, had the plot been realistic the film would have been very short with an unhappy ending.

It isn't the plot that's realistic but the depiction of being in space; the silence, the awkwardness in a bulky space suit, the disorientation of having no "up" or "down", the sharp clarity of the stations in the airless sunlight, the jaw-dropping views. Even on the small screen in 2D this came through very strongly. Clooney isn't exactly stretched in giving a wisecracking hero performance so the attention is very much on Sandra Bullock, who does a good job as a "space virgin" who has to overcome her panic when disaster strikes and demonstrate the Right Stuff to stand any chance of getting home.

I found the film to be edge-of-the-seat gripping, especially in the early part before the improbabilities started to pile up, and well worth watching. However, I agree with the critics: if it looks good on a small screen, it must have been truly spectacular at the IMAX.

Saturday 13 September 2014

Beyond the Barrier by Damon Knight

Damon Knight was an American SFF writer who was at the heart of the genre throughout its golden period. The first of his four dozen or so short stories was published in 1940, and seventeen novels followed in the period 1955 to 1996, the last appearing six years before his death. As his Wiki entry says, as well as winning the Hugo Award, he was "founder of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), cofounder of the National Fantasy Fan Federation, cofounder of the Milford Writer's Workshop, and cofounder of the Clarion Writers Workshop." His most famous work is probably the short story To Serve Man, which I read long ago and still remember vividly for its shock ending.

I have to say that in general his writing didn't strongly appeal to me, except for the one novel I have kept: Beyond the Barrier, originally published in 1964 as The Tree of Time. I hadn't read it for more than thirty years so decided to refresh my memory.

Gordon Naismith is a professor of science at a Californian university, a former air force crewman who had lost his memory in a plane crash four years earlier. His life is routine to the point of boredom when he is asked a question by one of his students: "What is a Zug?" He finds this a strangely disturbing question and is thrown further off-balance by a series of events which suggest that his forgotten past holds a secret – one that is known by some people of dubious origin who are determined to manipulate him for their own ends. He is forced to question who – and what – he really is.  As a result, he finds himself travelling into a far future in which humanity is about to implement a drastic measure to rid itself of its most deadly enemy, and he plays a crucial role in determining the outcome.

In the fashion of the time, the book is short at 150 pages. There is no padding, no leisurely scene-setting or background character development, the story hits the ground running and doesn't slow down at any point before Knight's characteristic terminal twist. I found it an irresistible page-turner and read it at one sitting. Recommended to all fans of SF of this period.


The second season of Under the Dome has started on UK TV. I reviewed the first series in September and November last year and pointed out numerous unrealistic plot elements, concluding that: "It isn't great SF but has been just about worth watching so far for the performance of the major characters". The first episode begins at the exact moment that the first season ended and the story continues unchanged. As do its strengths and weaknesses. After a couple of weeks of being cut off from the rest of the world there is still no apparent difficulty in finding food to eat, whereas any modern town so isolated, used to "just in time" deliveries of frozen and chilled produce, would begin to run out of supplies in a few days. I'll keep watching for the time being and see how it goes.

Saturday 6 September 2014

TV – Dollhouse (2009)

In my hunt for decent TV SF series I came across some favourable mentions of Dollhouse, so I put it on my view list.

The MacGuffin for this series can be summed up as "mind wipe and personality transfer". Criminals faced with a long jail term are given the option of volunteering to spend five years working for a secret corporation that removes and stores their personalities and substitutes those recorded from other people with specialist skills. The criminals (known as "Actives" or "Dolls") are then sent out on missions which range (in the first few episodes) between acting as a good-time girl for a rich man, a bodyguard in the guise of a pop singer, a master safe-cracker and a hostage negotiator. At the end of the mission their borrowed personalities are wiped and they are left as robotic blank slates until they are prepared for their next mission.

The principal Doll on which the series focuses, played by Eliza Dushku, is given the code name Echo. This part is a gift to an actor since she is on screen much of the time, playing dramatically varying roles (rather like Orphan Black in that respect), and Dushku is a convincing heroine. There are strong supporting roles, especially Olivia Williams as the person in charge of the Dollhouse, Harry Lennix as Echo's "minder", and Tamoh Penikett as FBI agent Paul Ballard who is certain that the Dollhouse exists, although his colleagues disagree.

It soon becomes clear that the mind wipes are not entirely effective: Echo appears to be slowly recovering some of her memories and personality, while one of the Dolls (Alpha) accidentally recovered the skills of all of the people he played and went rogue, threatening the Dollhouse. As the series continues, the plot switches away from the Actives' missions and becomes more complex. It focuses on the Dollhouse organisation itself, tensions within the management, and its real purpose, along with Agent Ballard's attempts to discover what is going on.

Compared with other series, Dollhouse is a slick production with a typically American glossiness about it. In contrast, the Canadian Orphan Black is grittier and darker but also much funnier, with the humour balancing what would otherwise be a rather grim tale. Dollhouse may lack much humour but the premise is intriguing and well-enough executed to hold the attention, and the script is intelligent. One long scene sticks in the mind in which Ballard confronts a rich man who hires Echo once a year to play "house"; Ballard is contemptuous but the rich man explains his motives and challenges Ballard's, and the viewer is left feeling rather sympathetic. I do like drama which goes beyond the usual Manichean good/evil contrast to show that the bad guys are not always evil and the motives of the good guys are not always pure.

The final episode of Season 1 – Epitaph One – is entirely different. It jumps forward to 2019 when the world is in chaos due to the uncontrolled spread of the mind-wiping technology. I understand from the Wiki summary that Season 2 then reverts to the present-day timeline to reveal how this catastrophe occurred, before the finale of Epitaph Two which jumps again to 2020. However, at the time of writing, Season 2 has not been released on DVD in the UK.