Saturday 22 September 2018

Screen time

Some films and a TV series to catch up with:

Film: Seventh Son (2014)

The cast of this fantasy epic looked promising: Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander being the big names, alongside the always good Olivia Williams and a brief cameo by Kit Harington (of Game of Thrones fame). The hero (Ben Barnes) is a young man who is, natch, a seventh son with unusual abilities, and as a result is recruited by Gregory, the last of the Spooks; a band of witch-hunters. Gregory certainly needs all the help he can get since the Witch Queen has broken free of her long imprisonment and is after revenge. The relationships all get rather tangled with almost all of the principals turning out to have a past history or to be related in some way to at least one of the others (and the hero predictably falling for a young witch who can't be all that bad, being Vikander). Inevitably, the climax is a pitched battle between the forces of good and evil, and guess who wins?

This film received poor reviews and was not a success at the box office. I find that a little surprising; I have seen worse movies treated more kindly. I suspect that the low ratings were down to disappointment that something more original did not emerge, the plot being predictable and the strong cast somewhat wasted, but there are worse ways to spend 100 minutes or so.

Film: Jurassic World (2015)

I enjoyed the first Jurassic Park film (1993) but felt that the two sequels were a bit too similar. The format doesn't lend itself to much variation, after all: recreated dinosaurs get loose and terrorise lots of people (as well as eating a few who really deserve it) before being defeated, and only the peripheral details vary.

My expectations were therefore not that high for the first episode of the second trilogy. Just as well, as it didn't vary from the formula. The additional details this time concerned a genetically manipulated and highly intelligent super-T-Rex, plus plans for "taming" the velociraptors to make them more useful in a military role. Chris Pratt does his usual hunky hero stuff, but he is ably supported by his co-star (Bryce Dallas Howard) who actually saves the day when all seems to be going badly. Nice to see the female lead being given a bold and courageous role, rather than being eye-candy who gets to scream a lot while awaiting rescue by the hunky hero. All in all, this film is adequate without rising above the ordinary. I gather that the next episode (Fallen Kingdom) is supposed to be better – I might get around to it sometime.

Film: Forbidden Planet (1956)

I almost certainly saw this film long ago, but had forgotten all about it. My first surprise was that it is in colour; it's so old that I expected monochrome! The plot is well known, and is said to have some similarities with Shakespeare's The Tempest, although it's too long since I last saw that play for me to comment.

A starship travels from Earth to visit Altair IV in order to rescue any survivors of an expedition which landed there twenty years before. To their surprise the starship crew find one of explorers, Morbius, living in some style and in command of highly advanced alien technologies including a robot. With him is his daughter, who was born on the planet before all of the expedition members except for Morbius and his wife were torn apart by some unseen entity. Needless to say, the daughter creates quite a reaction among the all-male starship crew, but then the destructive entity reappears and starts killing the crew.

The film is of course now very dated, but not as much as I expected. I thought it was roughly on a par in all respects with the early Star Trek TV series which came along a decade later – in other words, The Forbidden Planet was well ahead of its time and is still worth watching.

TV – Missions (2017)

This a French TV serial (with subtitles), set in the near future, about the first manned missions to Mars. Ulysses, a European space craft funded by William Meyer, a fabulously rich Swiss entrepreneur, is arriving in Mars orbit when they learn that they have already been beaten to the planet by a much faster American craft, funded by an equally wealthy US businessman, Ivan Goldstein. It becomes evident that the US craft experienced major problems on landing, so the European crew decide to attempt a rescue. They manage to land nearby (not without their own problems) and find one survivor in a spacesuit, but he has a surprise for them. After this, the plot evolves from a routine "trip to Mars" to something of much greater significance.

The serial ran for ten episodes of 25 minutes each (on BBC4 in the UK) and is structured in such a way that it isn’t possible to say any more about the plot without spoilers. I will just say that I was reminded of the film 2001, not so much in the specifics of the plot as in the atmosphere of a cosmic mystery gradually unfolding. It is intriguing and well worth seeking out.

Sunday 2 September 2018

Science Fiction catch-up

A few of the SF stories I've read recently:

Boundary, and Threshold, by Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor

I have had Eric Flint's work recommended to me for many years so finally decided to try one. He mostly writes alternative histories, his best known work being the 1632 series, in which a present-day US town is transported back to 17th century Germany, but that kind of sub-sub genre of SFF doesn't much appeal to me. In contrast, the plot summary of Boundary (published 2006) caught my eye: palaeontology, alien remains from the time of the dinosaurs, a voyage to Mars, ancient alien archaeology – that pushes enough of my buttons to be intriguing, so I bought a copy.

I have to say that I was soon feeling some regret, as I was initially not at all impressed by the writing style. The first chapter is liberally stuffed with infodumps, with space devoted to biographies of the main characters. Even emotions are described rather than displayed. The authors did not seem to be fans of the "show, don't tell" philosophy. My personal preference is to see an initial brief snapshot of the character, which is gradually built up over the course of the story with reminders about their main characteristics slipped in from time to time (especially if one reappears after an absence of several chapters). Another feature of this story which I am more than tired of is that almost all of the female characters are described as amazingly attractive. Taking it all together, I was reminded of what I had disliked about Jack McDevitt's early work.

However (as with McDevitt's books), the plot was interesting enough to keep me reading, and the writing got much better (or at least, I stopped noticing it). There is quite a lot of science involved, but it is not too technical and all sounds convincing. The plot develops in all sorts of intriguing directions and finally had me reading for several hours in order to find out what happened. The conclusion is appropriate and satisfying, but I see that there are several sequels so I might well try one or two more in this series. Recommended: just ignore the writing style in the first chapter!

I was pleased enough with Boundary to order the sequel, Threshold. When this eventually arrived (it took two attempts, the first disappeared somewhere en route) I was faced with an unusual problem. Although it was only a few months since I had read it, I had completely forgotten what Boundary was about. I had to spend an hour flipping through the book to refresh my memory, and read the last 40 or so pages again. Once I was up to speed, however, I got straight into Threshold. It is just as well that I did this, as the authors get straight to the action without any initial infodumps this time, although they helpfully include a list of characters.

The internal chronology includes a gap of some months between the two books, during which Earth governments have been absorbing the dramatic discoveries at the end of the first volume. The sequel starts with quite a lot of politics as responsibilities for the activities on Mars are divided and alliances made, but then there's a dramatic development – evidence found on Mars that there may be another ancient alien base on the asteriod Ceres.

Unfortunately, despite their initial restraint the authors were unable to resist working infodumps into the text, in the form of conversations between characters consisting of long explanations for whatever is going on. These are so wildly different from any real-world human discussions that it stretched my tolerance to the limit, and when plot developments flagged up a major international crisis on the way, I lost interest. It was the intriguing aliens I was interested in, not the usual human skulduggery!


Colony, by Ben Bova

Ben Bova is another of those authors whose name is familiar but whose books I can't recall having read. It's certainly taken me a while to catch up with Colony as it was first published in 1978. This is relatively hard SF, being set in a not-so-distant dystopian future in which Earth's environment gradually goes down the pan as the population continues to increase, while the World Government (that is one highly unlikely bit of utopianism!) fights political battles with giant international corporations which are secretly supporting revolutionary groups in the hope of weakening government authority.

The major corporations have already combined to create Island One – a huge, hollow, artificial world in the form of a 20 km-long cylinder which rotates on its axis to provide artificial gravity on the inner surface. This is located in one of the Lagrange points between the Earth and the Moon, is outside government control, and is populated by a select few. One inhabitant, born and raised there, is David Adams; the son of a woman who died in an accident while he was still in the womb, he had received the full attention of the colony's geneticists who had tinkered with his genome to give him every advantage. So he is highly intelligent, physically gifted, and immune to all known diseases. He is also bored with being trapped in space, and determined to travel to Earth to alert the government to the inevitability of the catastrophe facing the planet if drastic action is not taken. Once there, he finds himself unwillingly caught up in the revolutionary movement and most of the book is concerned with his adventures and relationships as he develops his thoughts about the future direction of civilisation's development.

This is a well-written and dramatic tale, with the time taken to develop believable characters and relationships. I am not fond of dystopias, having been depressed by quite enough of them, but I admired and enjoyed this story.


 Acadie, by Dave Hutchinson

This novella is by the author of the Fractured Europe trilogy, reviewed here in February 2017. It is set in the far future, written from the first-person viewpoint of a member of a breakaway group which, centuries before, had left the Earth in search of the freedom to develop their banned genetic modification programme. But Earth had not accepted this, and kept pursuing them. The story starts with the realisation that the hunters had found the group again, so they would have to leave once more. So far, so straightforward, but there is a profound and unexpected twist in the ending.