Saturday, 18 April 2015

Film: Cargo (2009)

Cargo is something of a novelty, a Swiss-made SF film with German dialogue translated via sub-titles. Don't let any of that put you off, though, it is worth watching. It is set 250 years from now, with the Earth abandoned as an ecological disaster area and the survivors of humanity living largely squalid lives in a vast orbiting space station, suffering from the activities of anti-technology terrorists. Most people's dream is to win or buy a trip to Rhea, an unspoiled "second Earth" of a planet a few light years away.

A young doctor, Laura Portmann, hopes to move to Rhea to join her sister who won a place there seven years before. To pay the fee she needs to earn more money so takes a job on an interstellar mission to deliver cargo to the unmanned Station 42. Interstellar travel is by huge sub-light-speed spacecraft with the crew spending most of the time in cold sleep, so the round trip will take her eight years, during which the small crew take it in turns to be awake and on duty for eight months at a time.

During Portmann's watch she suspects that there is someone else on board so wakes the rest of the crew. What follows is a tense drama with one revelation after another as the real purpose of their mission and its importance to mankind is gradually uncovered.

The film is atmospheric, both visually and in its soundtrack, with the CGI of the enormous space station and the ship providing an impressive sense of scale. The overall mood is of grim foreboding, emphasised by the rough condition of the old spacecraft, but Cargo is not the horror movie that this setting may suggest. While the plot is a mash-up of elements from other stories the script is intelligent, keeping viewers guessing what is coming next, and the ending has a realistic touch of optimism for the future.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Counterclockwise by Roger L Conlee

Having written one myself, I have a particular interest in alternative histories of World War 2; Counterclockwise (published in the USA in 2007) was drawn to my attention a few years ago but it took me a long time to get hold of a copy. It proved an interesting read, taking an individual approach to the subject.

The best-known alternative WW2 novels are concerned with the aftermath of the war, rather than its events. The only one of these to break through the genre barriers and become a best-seller is Fatherland by Robert Harris (published 1992); a detective story set in 1964, twenty years after a Nazi victory. In a similar vein is Dominion by C.J. Sansom (pub. 2012, and still on my reading pile) a political thriller set in the 1950s in a world in which the UK sued for peace after the fall of France in 1940; the country remains independent, but very much under the Nazi thumb. The best known to SFF fans is of course P.K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, reviewed on this blog in August 2009. Another I recall reading is 1945 (Gingrich & Forstchen, pub. 1995), which follows events immediately after a different WW2.

Novels actually describing the events of an alternative WW2 are less common. One well-known work is Turtledove's Worldwar series, but since the difference concerns an alien invasion, that one can be put into a separate category. At the opposite extreme of the probability spectrum come various "counterfactual histories", some by professional historians, concerning what might have happened had some key event turned out differently. Such an event is known as the "POD" – Point Of Departure – by alternative history fans; other key terms being OTL – Original Time Line (i.e. what actually happened historically) and ATL – Alternative Time Line (i.e. what happens from the moment of the POD).

Other novels that I am aware of which describe a different war are a very mixed bunch. I reviewed Priest's The Separation on this blog in July 2008, a review which points out the huge differences in approach between this work and my own The Foresight War. And there is Counterclockwise, which is different again.

Counterclockwise needs concentration to follow as it has a complex structure. The protagonist is Tom Cavanaugh, a drug squad detective living in 1988 (OTL), who finds a book published in 1965 by his journalist great-uncle, Jake Weaver; an account of a Japanese attack on Los Angeles in 1942. At first Cavanaugh takes it to be a work of fiction, but evidence gradually builds up to suggest that it is describing an ATL. The scenes then alternate between 1988, in which Cavanaugh begins to experience visions of the past, and 1942 as described by Weaver in extracts from his history. Within this history, the viewpoint switches between Weaver's own experiences (told in the first person) and that of several others whose accounts he subsequently collected, including that of a young Japanese Navy pilot taking part in the attack. Fortunately this potentially confusing structure is clarified to some extent by using a different font for Weaver's story and a new sub-heading whenever the scene changes.

The most obvious characteristic in Conlee's story is that the focus is very firmly on a few days in 1942, with events over that period recounted in great detail. Wider differences in the ATL only get a brief mention at the end of the novel. Two-thirds of the way through the book, the story changes gear with the introduction of a major new element in Part 2, but I can't say any more about it without serious spoilers, so if you want to find out by reading Counterclockwise for yourself, stop reading NOW!


Two characters in the 1988 OTL are elderly ladies, one of whom has a small shop dealing with antique clocks and historical documents which is where Cavanaugh finds Weaver's book. She is the widow of a physicist who had identified the existence of the two separate time-lines and discovered a means of travelling between them; he had also determined that the timelines were gradually recombining, which meant that only one history would eventually survive. The other lady is Cavanaugh's great-aunt, the widow of Jake Weaver. Cavanaugh discovers that these women are not only both fully aware of the ATL but also learned from the physicist a way of travelling to the past, albeit for a period of only a few days.

Cavanaugh realises that the recombining of the time-lines poses an existential threat which he can only resolve by travelling back to 1942 (ATL) – which he duly does, accompanied by Cass, his fiancée and constant companion. Their experiences there, including meeting film stars and trying to avoid being arrested on suspicion of being Nazi spies, are described in entertaining detail. This triggered a memory of similar events in stories I read some fifteen years ago, which I managed to locate on my shelves: the Timeshare trilogy by Joshua Dann (published 1997-9), in which the protagonist works as a guide for time-travellers and, among other things, becomes very personally involved in some of the events of WW2 (although without significantly changing history).

I do have a few criticisms of Counterclockwise, mostly trivial: there are the seemingly inevitable minor errors when non-specialists describe WW2 weaponry, plus the odd piece of carelessness (e.g. the fate of a man killed in 1968 described in the history published in 1965). More fundamentally, while I have no problem with time travel (I used it in The Foresight War) or moving between alternative timelines (included in my second novel Scales, along with the idea of timelines recombining), to include both in one story seems to me to be over-egging the pudding somewhat. For one major scientific impossibility I am willing to suspend disbelief, but two is pushing it! Despite this, I enjoyed this entertaining novel.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Film: The Man From Earth (2007)

The Man From Earth is a 2007 film with a screenplay by Jerome Bixby. That name seemed familiar to me so I looked it up and was reminded that Bixby was a prolific SF short-story writer in the 1950s and 1960s, probably best known for the chilling "It's a Good Life", a story I recall very well despite having read it several decades ago. Bixby also wrote screenplays, working on scripts for Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and four movies; The Man from Earth was his last work.

The plot is not entirely original but is unusual enough to be intriguing: a professor rather unwillingly hosts an impromptu farewell do for his academic friends, having decided to leave at short notice. They are baffled and hurt by his sudden decision, and pester him for an explanation. He eventually reveals that he always moves on every ten years to conceal the fact that he never ages; he was actually born 14,000 years ago. His friends are naturally incredulous and an intense debate takes place during which he fields their questions and challenges, with many revelations, twists and turns and more than a little emotion displayed.

The production could hardly be simpler as almost the entire film takes place in one room and consists only of half-a-dozen people talking to each other for an hour and a half; it was made on a budget of $200,000. It has more the feel of a good stage play than a movie (I was not surprised to discover that it was subsequently turned into a successful play). Despite this, it is one of the most absorbing and gripping films I have seen in a long time. The dialogue is very intelligent and thought-provoking, the shifting relationships between the characters fascinating; this is unquestionably a film for adults (very much a rarity in the SFF field). I discovered that it won a whole bunch of awards, mostly for its screenplay, and I am not at all surprised. It was released straight to DVD which I suppose is understandable considering the complete lack of any of the action, CGI, chases, fights or explosions that cinema audiences seem to require these days, but it really should not be missed.

The plot of the film did make me think: just how easy would it be these days for anyone to keep reinventing themselves every decade? I suppose it would depend on the circumstances: if you are happy with casual, cash-in-hand jobs then you could survive unnoticed for a long time, especially in the heart of a major city where hardly anyone knows their neighbours and you probably wouldn't even need to move around very much. But if you want a professional job it gets much more difficult; a professor would come from an existing academic post, would be known by others in his field of study, would be expected to have published academic papers and so on. And that's before we get into the whole panoply of personal data held by governments and other authorities. If you have money and know the right people, then you can buy forged ID and other documents, but these will only stand up to a certain level of scrutiny; it takes the resources of a government to create bomb-proof in-depth false identities. Curiously, this minor flaw in the film's plot niggled me rather more than the impossibility of anyone living for 14,000 years!

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Interzone 257

Columns in this issue include an appreciation of Iris Murdoch's writing by Nina Allan, plus interviews with Aliya Whitely and Helen Marshall. Notable reviews include Paul Sussman's first but previously unpublished novel, The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix. I am a fan of Sussman's archaeological mysteries, two of which I have reviewed in this blog, but he only published four before his death at the age of 45. Judging by the review, his first effort was set aside for a reason; it was a different kind of story, and perhaps too ambitious. The DVD reviews include Continuum, which got me all excited that the third season of the excellent Canadian time-travel series had made it across the Pond at last, but sadly not yet – it's an entirely unrelated movie (also about time travel) which attracted only a lukewarm review.

Now to the stories:

A Murmuration by Alastair Reynolds, illustrated by Wayne Haag. An ornithologist living in a remote observatory is working on a mathematical analysis of the movements within a "murmuration"; a great cloud of starlings which gather every day and form sweeping patterns. He is trying to gain approval from a scientific journal to publish his article describing the results, while simultaneously acting as a professional referee to another article submitted to the journal. As his involvement with the murmuration increases, it gradually becomes clear that his grasp of reality is not entirely firm.

Songbird by Fadzlishah Johanabas, illustrated by Vincent Sammy. A young woman is held against her will, drugged  and compelled to sing. Her songs change the nature of a liquid so that when others drink it, they experience a range of strong emotions – depending on the nature of the song. Her captors make a good living selling the drugs she produces, but she is struggling to find a way to escape them.

Brainwhales are Stoners, Too by Rich Larson, illustrated by Warwick Fraser-Coombe. An adolescent couple break into a ThinkTank to see a Brainwhale; a whale which is wired into IT systems to make use of the computational power of its huge brain. One of them gets a lot closer to the whale than she ever expected.

The Worshipful Company of Milliners by Tendai Huchu, illustrated by Richard Wagner. Where do ideas come from? Invisible hats, of course, made by feline creatures who are themselves invisible to humans, and whose lives are spent in manufacturing hats for those people who have need of them.

Blossoms Falling Down by Aliya Whitely, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A close examination of an episode in the life of a woman in a Haiku Room, where people go to hear appropriate haikus for their concerns. It gradually becomes evident that this is just one of the varied entertainments provided in a vast generation ship on an endless journey.

I enjoyed this group of stories. While there is no humour in them this time, they are all intriguing and are very different from each other. It is unusual for a well-established novelist to contribute a story and I particularly liked A Murmuration, the kind of tale which has you wanting to read it again in the light of the conclusion. Which reminds me that I while I read several novels by Reynolds a long time ago, I have had a couple of unread ones sitting in my pile for ages; I really must dig them out.

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.