Saturday, 21 March 2015

Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon

Following my marathon slog through the author's turgid Last and First Men a couple of weeks ago I girded up my loins, gritted my teeth and picked up Star Maker (published in 1937) with considerable apprehension. Be warned, there are spoilers in this review.

An unnamed man, living on a contemporary Earth, has a vision in which he finds his disembodied self speeding away from our planet and into the depths of the galaxy. The story consists of what he discovers there, could up to the ultimate revelation of the origin and purpose of the Universe; Stapledon can never be accused of lack of ambition in his writing!

Initially, the man finds an "Other Earth" in a far-distant star system, on which there are more or less humanoid inhabitants living in a society at a comparable level to Earth's. He spends several subjective years there, seeing the world through the eyes of the people. A key difference is that for them, taste and scent are much stronger senses than sight, which has some interesting social implications. The author holds up a mirror to the Earth by describing some of the more ridiculous or depressing trends in a society which is like Earth's only more so, including parodying the emphasis on religious differences (he obviously has little sympathy with religion, which caused some controversy at the time). In this part he is following a similar path to that of Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels, only in a less exaggerated form and without the humour.

The protagonist is able to join minds with one of the natives, and the pair of them set off on a mental tour of the galaxy, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations (to borrow a phrase). These they find, in vast numbers and with a wide variety in the nature of their inhabitants, and they add other minds to their group as they travel. Millions of years pass and civilisations rise and mostly fall again with depressing frequency.  Those which survive for long enough may develop a "communal world mind", with every individual contributing telepathically to such "wakened worlds". Utopian civilisations often result, based on communism and eugenics – popular and respectable ideas in the 1930s, rather less so today. 

As civilisations continue to develop, they learn how to move planets, creating artificial suns to orbit around them in order to maintain life, and they make artificial planets consisting of concentric spheres with people living on many different levels within them (readers may recognise here ideas used by Larry Niven and Iain M Banks, among others). There are devastating wars between wakened worlds until telepathic powers become strong enough to bind them together over interstellar, and eventually galactic, distances, such telepathic unions enabling a far greater understanding of life, the universe and all that, than individual minds can achieve. The scale of the story becomes ever-greater as it proceeds to the climax – the identification of the Star Maker, the creator of the universe, followed by long descriptions of his works.

In contrast with Last and First Men, at least this one has a kind of plot and a protagonist who tells the tale in the first person, and the description of the Other Earth is entertaining. However, as the story progresses it becomes increasingly metaphysical and remote from any kind of human experience, and I must confess to doing some skim-reading as I approached the end to get to the conclusion as soon as possible. Like Stapledon's earlier work, Star Maker is packed full of interesting and original ideas which must have inspired many SF writers, but this is frankly a terrible novel in terms of engaging the reader and is only worth ploughing through for its historical interest.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Film: X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

I have more or less kept up with the X-Men films (barring the odd offshoot) as it is one of the better fantasy series of recent times, so I ordered the DVD as soon as it became available. What follows has some minor spoilers so, if you insist on every development coming as a surprise (in which case, why read reviews?) you had better stop now – I'll just say that it's definitely worth seeing.

I found the start rather confusing because I had formed the impression beforehand that it was the sequel to X-Men: First Class, which was set in the 1960s; probably because of the advertised presence of Jennifer Lawrence rather than Rebecca Romijn as Mystique.  However, the beginning consists of a series of savage combats set in a bleak future world wrecked by warfare, in which the X-Men have been hunted to near-extinction by the Sentinels, artificial humanoids specifically designed to detect and kill them. The few survivors, including an aged Professor X and Magneto working together, had deduced that the war was started by one act in 1973 – the killing by Mystique of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the creator of the Sentinels. There is just one chance of changing history – so the time-shifting talent of one of the X-Men is used to send the mind of Wolverine back to inhabit his body in 1973, to try to prevent the assassination.

What follows is a race against time as Wolverine, now in 1973, tries to recruit the help of reluctant younger versions of Professor X and Magneto in finding Mystique and dissuading her from killing Trask, before the Sentinels in the future locate the last X-Men and destroy Wolverine's unconscious body. Of course that isn't simple and a series of complications ratchets up the tension, with some great set-pieces leading up to the climax.

The mood is darker than I recall from the previous films, but the plot is more focused and the dramatic pacing is very good. All in all, this film more than maintains the standard of the others. It was good to see Famke Janssen again, albeit briefly, but I still much prefer Rebecca Romijn's version of Mystique!

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon

When the Classic SF discussion group chose Stapledon's second novel, Star Maker, as a book of the month, I decided to warm up by tackling his first one, Last and First Men. This title has been familiar to me for as long as I can remember and the book is acknowledged as one of the classics of SF, but for some reason I'd never read it (or about it) so at the start I had no idea what to expect. It turned out to be not so much a warm-up as a full-on marathon.

The story is effectively a future history of mankind on Earth, as told by one of the Last Men from billions of years in the future, who is able to relay the story to a present-day man (one of the First Men, naturally). And it reads like a history book, of the summary overview type – as it has to be considering the scope of the work. Barring one scene, there is nothing in the way of dialogue, no characters and no plot: just a massive, three-hundred page infodump. Nonetheless, there was enough of interest in it for me to finish, albeit somewhat exhausted and in need of a lie-down with a damp towel on my forehead. The description which follows includes some spoilers.

The most important point about this book is the date of publication: 1930. For the time, the themes covered in the book were radical and it caused something of a sensation, as did the scope of the work, with civilisation after civilisation rising and falling over billions of years. Some of the elements he includes are relevant today: an example from the early part of the book is the growth in power of transnational commercial organisations at the expense of national governments (a popular theme in SF ever since).  Later on, with the Third Men, a philosophy which reverences all life becomes popular. In contrast with this, a major theme in the latter part of the book becomes the genetic engineering (not that it's called that, of course) not just of plants and animals but of humans too. At first the purpose is to eliminate genetic ailments and extend life, but subsequently this switches to improving the stock (something taken to extremes with the Fourth Men) or even to convert humanity to different environments such as living in the sea or the air. The ultimate developments are mental rather than physical, with the creation of "group minds" through telepathy.

The author deserves credit for his detailed description of an alien life form which is radically different not just from humans but from the kind of animal life we are familiar with. I was also pleased to see that he identified a significant problem with rebuilding civilisation after its first great collapse: that all of the readily available minerals which made the first Industrial Revolution possible were worked out, so humanity had to find other routes to developing civilisation. In this story these were overcome, humanity ultimately terraforming other planets in the Solar System after life on Earth becomes untenable. One social development he mentions is that of group marriage, subsequently developed by Heinlein.

This does not mean that the author was some kind of prophet; his history of the rest of the 20th century is wildly,  almost comically, inaccurate. Nothing dates the book so much as its reference to the Swastika along with the Cross as being a sacred religious emblem; well, so it was – for another couple of years or so after the book's publication (the fact that the Nazi version was orientated the other way doesn't blunt the point).

The story is a straight-faced account, with the exception of the only scene with dialogue (which includes some wry humour) and one joke which runs through the early part of the book. Stapledon was English, and he includes a dialect saying which can still be heard today: "God help us", used to express ironic exasperation at a turn of events and always said with a broad accent as "Gawd 'elp us" to emphasise the comic intent. In the story, this saying is misunderstood by non-English listeners, with the result that for generations to come the Supreme Being is called "Gordelpus".

Was it worth the time and effort to read? Yes, I suppose so, for its historic relevance to SF, and for the grand scope and ambition of the work. But I don't expect to read it ever again!

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Film: Divergent (2014)

This one slipped past me when it appeared in cinemas a year ago and I only found out about it when I saw an advert for the sequel, due for release soon. I hadn't heard of the novels it was based on either until I looked them up, and discovered that the young author (Veronica Roth) had won awards for her trilogy (Divergent, Insurgent and Allegiant) published in 2011-2013. I haven't yet read these, so had no particular expectations of the film. There are a few minor spoilers in this review.

The setting is a post-apocalyptic world in which civilisation is maintained in Chicago, kept separate from the mysterious dangers of the rest of the world by an enormous fence. Within the city, the population is divided into five factions depending on their personal attributes: Erudite (the intellectuals); Dauntless (fighters and peacekeepers); Abnegation (who help others and run the government); Candor (who always tell the truth) and Amity (the peaceful; farmworkers etc). Which faction they belong to is determined when they reach adulthood by a psychological test. Those unable to belong to any of these are known as the Factionless, and live on the fringe of society, surviving by begging. The purpose of dividing society in this way was to achieve stability but, at the beginning of the story, Erudite is stirring up discontent with Abnegation's rule.

Enter the heroine, Beatrice or Tris (Shailene Woodley), brought up in an Abnegation family, whose test is inconclusive; she is a Divergent, a rare personality type feared and hated by the others because they are unpredictable and ungovernable. She keeps her result secret and chooses to join Dauntless, where she is put through a tough training regime designed to weed out the uncommitted. She is surreptitiously helped through this by Four (Theo James) one of the trainers who takes an interest in her. The tension steadily mounts as the growing political crisis becomes interwoven with Tris's personal battle for survival.

Divergent is reminiscent of several other stories, most obviously The Hunger Games and the film Aeon Flux (reviewed on this blog), with a touch of Harry Potter and even echoes of Huxley's Brave New World; plot elements which seem to have been carefully selected to appeal to the target Young Adult audience, as no doubt will the rather simplistic good guys vs bad guys characterisation. While the story contains little in the way of original ideas, these disparate elements are mixed together quite effectively in a film which is well-paced and well-acted, and it held my attention throughout. Not a great film but a good one, and worth watching.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Mainline by Deborah Christian

I was browsing my bookshelves the other day and spotted Mainline by Deborah Christian.  I was puzzled, because I had no recollection of this book whatsoever, but must certainly have read it (books don't get shelved until I have). The publication date was 1996, when I would probably have ordered the book from a postal SFF bookseller I dealt with at that time, who used to send an occasional stock catalogue with recommended reads and comments on each book – sadly, long killed off by the online booksellers.

The blurb sounded promising so I duly read it. The plot is set in a very distant future in which humanity has expanded to create an empire of many worlds, shared with alien races. Some humans have developed psychic abilities of one kind or another, and these are marked with face tattoos to warn people of their particular skills – except for some Imperial agents, and wild talents who have so far escaped identification.

Reva is such a wild talent – a young woman who can move between alternate time-lines at will or hover invisibly between them, deciding on which one to enter. A useful talent for her chosen profession of assassin, enabling her to appear and disappear from any particular reality; her ability to achieve the apparently impossible has made her wealthy. She is a sociopath who has kept aloof from involvement with other people, simply changing lines to avoid problems. However, on a visit to her home planet R'debh, a watery world where she endured a difficult childhood, she finds herself drawn into relationships with Lish, a "Holdout" (supplier of illegal merchandise to the criminal fraternity) and Vask Kastlin, whom she believes to be a fixer, but (as readers know) is actually an Imperial agent with his own talents. The threat posed by another assassin, the formidable alien Yavobo, holds Reva pinned to the mainline – the reality she is now in – due to her reluctance to abandon her new friends to their fate. She is faced with one problem after another in resolving the complex situation which develops, and experiences a gradual shift in her priorities and character, eventually being forced into taking drastic action.

This was the author's first novel and was an impressive debut, keeping me turning the pages and reluctant to put the book down. It is not without flaws, however.  The story is too crowded with characters and other strange beings such as Borgbeasts and the legendary Ghost Ray, although to her credit I didn't usually forget who people were. Furthermore, I could never sort out what happened to the versions of herself who existed in other time lines which she crossed to. She materialises physically in each line, but also seems to replace the local version. I do prefer such plot devices to make sense within their own context, however wild the concepts might be.

A quick web search revealed that Deborah Christian, who nowadays prefers to use her middle name of Teramis, has been working primarily as a game designer, although she has published three other novels; two fantasies soon after Mainline, and Splintergrate (to be published soon) which is set in the same universe as Mainline.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Film: Ender's Game (2013)

I read Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game shortly after it first came onto the market some thirty years ago but I didn't rate it highly enough to keep on my shelves, so I haven't read it since. I could recall the broad outline of the story but remembered few details, so I watched the film with an open mind.

For any readers unfamiliar with the story, it is set in a future in which Earth is at war with Formics – aliens resembling giant ants – who had been beaten off after trying to invade some decades before but were now perceived as posing a renewed threat. The International Fleet defending Earth had discovered that children, intensively schooled in computer games, were faster at understanding and solving tactical situations in battle, so instituted a programme of training and selection to find the best. Their choice was Ender Wiggin, a boy who exhibited the right combination of intelligence, tactical control, and ruthlessness in battle. The story follows Ender through his training, climaxing in a final battle with the Formics.

I can't comment on similarities and differences compared with the book, as I read it too long ago. However, I formed the impression right at the start that the film was "the book on screen" type of adaptation, rather than a freer interpretation of the concept; the fact that the author was involved in the production might have had something to do with that. So the film starts with a rather clumsy voice-over infodump to explain the background to the story, about the aliens and the programme to train children, before the drama begins. It's the kind of thing that you might expect in a sequel, just to remind viewers what happened in Part 1. Once it gets going, the direction, acting and CGI are all handled competently enough, and the zero-gravity combat training scenes are convincing and entertaining. Despite this, I found that the film lacked a certain tension until the climactic battle; it had a rather routine, by-the-numbers, box-ticking air which left me feeling uninvolved. Good to have a conclusion which challenges the morality of an all-out interspecies war, though. It was just about worth watching, but rather forgettable, with the most memorable image being the Maori tattoo on the face of one of the characters!