Saturday, 3 August 2019

The Songs of Distant Earth, by Arthur C. Clarke

My reading of Clarke has been somewhat patchy, as I absorbed all I could find in the 1960s and into the 1970s, but not a lot thereafter. So while Rendezvous with Rama remains one of my all-time favourites (and the book I would recommend to anyone interested in discovering what classic SF is all about) I did not read The Songs of Distant Earth when it emerged in 1986.

The setting is a little complicated: astrophysicists discover early in the 21st century that the sun will go nova in only 1,500 years time, wiping out all life on Earth. This prompts a vast seeding project starting 500 years later, in which seedships, travelling at sub-light speeds, are sent to promising planets discovered around various other stars. They have no crew but contain everything necessary to regenerate plant and animal life and to rear and educate people. It was assumed that this would be the only method of survival available, and Earth's population was steadily wound down in preparation for the end. However, only a couple of centuries before the nova, a quantum drive was developed which made manned starships feasible. Just before the nova, the starship Magellan duly takes off with hundreds of thousands of frozen people, aiming for a planet with the potential to support life, but needing some drastic terraforming. On the way it stops off at another planet, named Thalassa, seeded seven centuries earlier, in order to take on board enough material to continue its journey. A hundred or so members of the crew are thawed out in order to deal with this – a process expected to take two years. The story is all about the relationship between the starship crew and the Thalassans.

There is very little land on this ocean world, just a couple of islands, so the population is carefully controlled and, given the very favourable climate, has evolved a relaxed and appealing lifestyle, without a lot of use for technology. Romantic relationships develop between some of the locals and the crew members, as might be expected, and some crew members decide they would rather remain on Thalassa than continue to their goal. There is also a sub-plot concerning giant crustaceans which show signs of organisation. As far as the plot goes, that's about it.

What stands out are the author's views on politics and religion, which are expressed with some force. The president of Thalassa (a largely ceremonial post) is chosen by lot from almost the entire adult population, apart from a few obvious exclusions, plus a less obvious one – anyone who tries to be selected is automatically barred as inherently unsuitable! Although some seedships had been sent out by followers of the few surviving faiths, religion was largely regarded as obsolete by the time the seedships were dispatched. Religious belief had been  assessed long ago as being not worth the trouble it caused, so all mention of it had been carefully excluded from the educational programmes and library resources available to the Thalassans. As Clarke puts it: "they could not be allowed to reinfect virgin planets with the ancient poisons of religious hatred, belief in the supernatural, and the pious gibberish with which countless billions of men and women had once comforted themselves at the cost of addling their minds". Not just religion, but histories, art and literature were ruthlessly purged of "everything that concerned war, crime, violence and the destructive passions" (probably not a very big library remained!). The Thalassans are accordingly portrayed as a tolerant and friendly people without any hang-ups. Whether or not this approach would have the desired effect is questionable, as is the concept of the first generation of settlers being cared for and educated by AI systems.

By the time I reached the end, I found myself rather confused. Somehow, the story doesn't seem to hang together as a coherent narrative; it has the feel of of something cobbled together from various different elements which do not sit that comfortably together. Even the title doesn't seem to fit the story, giving the impression the author used it just because he liked the sound of it. In a note at the beginning of the book, Clarke comments that the novel was based on a short story written thirty years previously, with the plot modified to make the science more realistic. I haven't read the short story, but I suspect that a degree of dramatic focus was lost in the expanded tale.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Screen time

Space Battleship Yamato (2010)

I know, I know, but I couldn't resist Yamato! One of my main interests apart from SFF is 20th century military technology, especially of World War 2. So I really had to see an SF film featuring a futuristic version of the greatest battleship ever built, the Japanese Yamato (to appease the pedants I should also mention that she had a sister-ship, the Musashi).

In terms of its iconography and overall ambience, the film is a kind of blend of Star Wars and Star Trek, with a uniquely Japanese flavour – which means rather more in the way of dramatic formal attitudes and gestures than Hollywood might produce. I did wonder, before I saw it, if the plot involved salvaging the actual Yamato from her watery grave and kitting her out with all of the systems she would require to become a spacecraft, but it wasn't quite that dotty – she was a purpose-designed space ship that just looked remarkably like her WW2 ancestor.

Anyhow, the plot (if it matters) takes place in 2199 and involves superior alien spacecraft systematically destroying the Earth defences and sowing the surface with radioactivity, forcing the dwindling remnants of humanity to take refuge underground. When all seems lost, a message capsule is received containing information about building a warp drive able to cross interstellar space, plus giving the coordinates of a distant planet. The Yamato, fitted out with the warp drive and associated warp gun at t'other end – sets sail (to use a slight anachronism), but discovers some surprises on arrival.

There is the obligatory pairing of a hot-headed but highly-skilled young officer in conflict with his apparently staid but worthy captain, and an attractive young female pilot who is at first hostile to the handsome hot-head but…. well, I don't really need to go on. The climax of the film is classically Japanese, which is to say not how Hollywood usually does it.

It is totally absurd from start to finish, to the degree that there is no point in trying to analyse the plot, but I have to confess that I parked my critical faculties and actually quite enjoyed it. It certainly stands comparison with some of the lesser Star Trek/Wars output.

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

This also has a Japanese link, as it is based on a manga series of that name dating back to 1989, and there have already been various screen treatments. Cue lots of criticism of the film for not being faithful to the original, and for having a westerner (Scarlett Johansson) playing the lead role. Since I was unaware of this background until after I had watched the film, that did not spoil my enjoyment at all.

As far as the film is concerned the story begins with the creation of an ideal warrior by transferring a human brain into an artificial body to create a cyborg. The plot follows the adventures of Mira Killian, the cyborg, as she enforces law'n'order by killing lots of people, very efficiently. But then she meets her supposed enemy who causes her to question her role, and ultimately to find out the truth of her own, human origin.

This is not a great film but it's not bad either and the CGI is spectacular, with a rather Blade-Runner feel to the futuristic/grotty urban setting. Worth seeing if you like this kind of action movie.

 Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Also known as Star Wars: Episode VIII, this is the second movie in the post-Star Wars reboot, and the sequel to The Force Awakens (2015 – reviewed on this blog in June 2016). The start is the worst part of it, with the evil Supreme Leader Snoke making melodramatic threats against the heroic Resistance, in a scene apparently pitched at the comprehension level of a rather dim-witted eight-year-old. Of course, we knew that Snoke was a bad guy before he said a word because he is incredibly ugly, so in compliance with all such movies he must be bad, right? It would clearly shake something fundamental in the conventions of such movies for the bad guys to be handsome or beautiful and the good guys rather ugly, for once.  How did virtue become so firmly asssociated with good looks?

The film doesn't get much better as it goes along, being careful to press the nostalgia button to appeal to those who fondly recall the original trilogy, so it's just more of the same, really. There is one scene which stands out from the rest (and doesn't really fit in with it) when Rey (Daisy Ridley) is on the planet where Luke Skywalker has sought refuge, and falls into an underground space which has surfaces which reflect her image apparently to infinity. This looked interesting and for a moment I hoped the plot would be heading off in an intriguing new direction, but sadly it led nowhere, like the rest of the story.

Jumanji (1995)

I first saw Jumanji quite a long time ago and recalled it as a fun, family, light entertainment. Having seen the favourable reviews of the much-delayed sequel, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, I decided to see the original again as a warm-up for the new film.

Jumanji focuses on a mysterious board game of that name, found by a young lad in 1969. The boy starts to play but is sucked into the world of the game – a wild jungle. Some 25 years later the game is rediscovered by two children who start to play only to discover that they have released from the game the long-lost boy, now a man in his 30s (Robin Williams). He tells them that to escape from the game they must finish playing it. So they continue rolling the dice, despite the fact that each move results in some new disaster – huge, stinging insects, a horde of destructive monkeys, a fast-growing man-eating plant (eat your hearts out, triffids!), and a stampede of African big game, all happening in their home town. Naturally, everything ends up as it should, with the good guys on top and the villain getting his just desserts.

I enjoyed it just as much the second time around. The original plot makes a very refreshing change from the current take on heroic fantasy films, far too many of which can be summed up in four words: superheroes beat up antiheroes.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

This long-delayed sequel features the same magical game only this time it upgrades itself to a virtual reality version into which a quartet of youngsters are accidentally uploaded, finding themselves in something like the Amazonian jungle. As before, completing the game is the only way to escape from it; this requires returning a large jewel to the statue it was stolen from. This is made more complex by the opposition of the heavily-armed gang who stole it.

The twist – and the source of much humour – is that the youngsters do not appear as themselves, but as the avatars they have hastily chosen. So the weakling nerd finds himself portrayed by Dwayne Johnson while the massive football jock becomes a very small man (Kevin Hart), the painfully shy girl appears as a red-hot martial arts expert (Karen Gillan), and (best of all) the self-absorbed beauty becomes an overweight middle-aged man (Jack Black). Cue lots of gender-change jokes as the youngsters try to get used to their avatars. Each of these avatars has certain strengths and weaknesses, and this assorted bunch has to learn to work together to finish the game. Each has three lives – after which they are dead for real.

The film is lively and amusing, with a healthy dose of moralising concerning the importance of developing trust and cooperation. This sequel manages the rare achievement of being a considerably better film than the original. I see that a third film in the series is due at the end of this year, and I'll be looking out for it.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

TV – Dune (2000)

Dune, by Frank Herbert, was first published as two separate serials in Analog magazine in 1965. It won the inaugural Nebula Award for best novel and shared the 1966 Hugo Award (with Zelazny's This Immortal). This immediate success was sustained, Dune remaining in print ever since, making it one of the best-selling SF novels of all time. Why has it been so successful? Partly because it has an original (if rather complex) plot; partly because it is extremely well-written by any standards, with evocative descriptive passages, excellent characterisation and perceptive dialogue; and partly because of the detailed world-building, including a quasi-religion and a detailed planetary ecology. In my judgment, this is probably the best SF novel ever written, leagues above the usual standard of the time. I reviewed it a decade ago on this blog (I advise reading that first unless you are already familiar with the story, otherwise some of what follows won't make much sense).

The success of Dune prompted Herbert to churn out several sequels: Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune. I think I read most of those at the time but only kept the first, and haven't yet given that a second reading; the standard fell away sharply. In fact, nothing else Herbert wrote compared with the original Dune, so he remains one of those authors remembered for only one book; but with a book as good as this one, that is still a notable achievement.

A feature-length movie of Dune was made in 1984. In a word, it was disappointing. As I said in my blog review of the book: "…that's what you get if you try to compress a densely-plotted book, which takes me around seven hours to read, into just over two hours." Recently I became aware that a US television adaptation of the book was made in 2000, so I bought the DVDs and have now watched them. Some spoilers follow.

I was hopeful about this one as the total running time (three 1.5 hr episodes) is double that of the 1984 film, which should have allowed enough time to make a decent job of the adaptation. However, I was wincing right from the start as characters and locations were introduced in a kind of box-ticking session. It did get better (or maybe I adjusted my expectations) and the extra time was put to some good use later on.

For the most part, the TV series followed the book quite closely. Curiously, some new scenes were introduced and one character was upgraded from peripheral to central: Princess Irulan. In the book, only the occasional explanatory extracts from various of Irulan's writings appear (a very good form of infodump IMO) until right at the end of the story, when as part of a deal with the emperor she becomes the nominal wife to the hero Paul, who prefers his Fremen girlfried, Chani. In the film Irulan makes a much earlier appearance and has a number of her own scenes as she pursues Paul, among other things. The problem with this is that Irulan (Julie Cox) is not only considerably more attractive than Chani (Barbora Kodetová), she also has a strong and lively personality whereas Chani is a bit of a nonentity. Frankly, any man would pick Irulan - it's a no-brainer. In the book this problem doesn't arise because Paul had been committed to (a much more appealing) Chani for years before meeting (an ice-maiden) Irulan, but in the film he meets a captivating Irulan first. To digress for a moment, I was reminded of the film of Lord of the Rings in which Aragorn rejects the overtures from Eowyn (a strong and powerfully appealing performance from Miranda Otto) in favour of Liv Tyler's bland, colourless Arwen. Those who pick the cast and direct the films need to be careful to keep the relationships credible.

Another less dramatic difference is that the screen Paul is years older than in the book, yet has been given a somewhat less mature and controlled personality; to start with he appears to be a relatively ordinary (if well-trained), but maybe somewhat spoiled, young man; perhaps a deliberate choice to allow more of the audience to relate to him.

One aspect of the story – in both book and screen versions – which seems slightly uncomfortable today is that the nearest current equivalent to the culture of the Fremen, the idealised desert fighters, would probably be found among traditional Arab tribes. Even some of the language is the same, as Paul is worried that his leadership of the Fremen might cause them to engage in a holy war – a jihad.

All in all, the TV series is sort-of worth watching but don't expect the experience to match that of reading the book – it doesn't come close. To be fair, I suspect that Dune is a particularly difficult tale to transfer to the screen, because there is such a lot of explanation incorporated into the text which can't be conveyed just through dialogue and expressions or body language. This could only partly be alleviated by voice-overs, because some scenes contain so much about what various individuals are observing and thinking. For example, a formal dinner held in Arrakis takes about 20 pages to describe, with spoken conversation being only a part of it. This leaves the screen version part-way between the book and a comic strip (sorry, graphic novel...) in that it consists of visual images with some words for extra information, with all of the subtlety and sophistication of the writing being omitted. To be blunt, the book is for adults, the screen version for a younger audience.

The conclusion – read the book!

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Journey to the Centre of the Earth, book and 1959 film

This novel by French SF writer Jules Verne was first published in 1864, and is regarded as a classic of the genre. I probably read it as a young lad – it was the kind of book I devoured – but could recall nothing about it, so I decided to rectify this lapse in my memory.  I was prompted to do so by the fact that the well-known 1959 film version (there have been several others) was recently shown on UK TV, so I took the opportunity to compare them.

Readers of this blog who have only seen a screen version of Journey to the Centre of the Earth may be surprised to discover that the main characters of the book are in fact German: Professor Liedenbrock is the leader and driving force of the expedition, although the story is told in the first person by his nephew and assistant Axel. It begins in their shared home in Hamburg (which, technically speaking, was at that time an independent sovereign state of the German Confederation – Germany did not become a nation state until 1871). The professor discovers an old book by a legendary Icelandic explorer which includes a coded message giving directions to the centre of the Earth. Without wishing to give too much away (although the book title provides a clue!) the professor, Axel and Icelandic guide and assistant Hans Bjelke manage to find the route, following natural tunnels in a dormant volcano. It will be a long time, and only after many adventures, that they see the sky again.

This and other SF novels by Verne were best-sellers in their day (and have remained in print ever since) but were more than just entertainment. Verne was an enthusiast for the scientific developments of the time, and was writing in the aftermath of fundamental discoveries. Geology was a new science, with an understanding of the great age of the Earth, and the identification of geological periods, having largely taken place in 1820-1850; while Charles Darwin's sensational On the Origin of Species was published in 1859.  Verne's aim was to educate as well as entertain, so the story is packed with references to geological ages, fossils the development of life, and other scientific matters. While there were still considerable errors and uncertainties in the scientific understanding of some aspects of geology (without which this plot would have been impossible – particularly concerning an ongoing debate about the temperature deep in the Earth) Verne did his best to ensure that his story reflected current scientific thinking; I was in fact surprised at the detail and accuracy of much of the science in the book.

That does not mean that the story is just a large infodump. Verne was a skilled story-teller and draws the reader into the tale. His account of the journey from Hamburg to Iceland and his description of life among the Icelanders makes a fascinating historical travelogue in its own right; in fact, this is so convincing that he must either have visited the country, or had access to an extremely detailed source. There is room for character development too, despite the modest length of 184 pages: the professor is impatient and irascible, keen to press on regardless of the difficulties and dangers. Axel, on the other hand, is a timid and fearful young man who only wants to marry his sweetheart and live a peaceful life in Hamburg, and is appalled to be dragged into the adventure. The nearest to a hero is the impassive and imperturbable Hans, who saves the expedition from disaster on several occasions. There is also room for the occasional spark of dry humour, for instance when Axel qualifies his uncle's enthusiasm for old and rare books: "…but no old book had any value in his eyes unless it had the virtue of being nowhere else to be found or, at any rate, of being illegible."

One incidental source of amusement in my edition (Wordsworth Classics) is the occasional footnotes by the (unnamed) person who translated the story from French to English. These point to various inconsistences in the text, e.g. concerning conversions from metric to imperial. There is a particular problem with Verne's use of "leagues" to measure distance. The normal English custom (assumed by the translator) was that a league = 3 miles, but I note from Wiki that the measurement meant different things in different parts of Europe, and could be anything between 2.4 and 4.6 miles, which presumably added to the translator's confusion. It is worth mentioning that there are several different translations into English, of varying quality. These are discussed at

To most modern readers, Journey to the Centre of the Earth stands alone in its plot, but it the idea was not original. As mentioned in my review of Science Fiction: A Literary History posted on this blog in January 2018; "there was a separate sub-section of "hollow earth" stories about adventures underground – Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth was really a late revival of this". It was also about the last time that such a plot could have been used with any pretence of scientific credibility, before the Earth's structure and temperatures deep underground were understood.

Verne's story has certainly gripped the public imagination ever since, with other stories being influenced by it (most notably, Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, which was itself the inspiration for the Jurassic Park film series) and Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar stories. It has also received a number of screen treatments, the best known being a Hollywood epic which emerged in 1959.


The 1959 film is a widescreen spectacular in glowing colour, nearly 2¼ hours long, and was a financial success. The basic plot remains the same, with various alterations and additions to appeal to a wider (and specifically US) audience. The principal characters become Scottish instead of German; the young man in the expedition (played by Pat Boone) is bold rather than a wimp, and is keen to take part; there are not just one, but two, rival explorers trying to beat the professor (James Mason) to the entrance of the underground world, with murder and other shenanigans resulting; the expeditionary group is expanded to include an attractive woman (Arlene Dahl), and a pet duck (uncredited) for comical effect. And the film makers could not resist chucking Atlantis into the mix.

Missing from the film is the richly detailed information about Iceland, and much of the detail about science in general and geology in particular. Together with the inherent lack of a viewpoint character, these changes soften the focus of the story. However, the result is probably more family-pleasing entertainment than a straightforward following of the text would have been. For myself, I would be much more interested in reading the book again than watching the film.

According to Wiki, other screen versions include a 1993 TV movie, a 1999 TV miniseries, and a 2008 release in versions for both TV and the cinema which has led to sequels based on other Verne stories. I have no information about any of those, so comments would be welcome!