Saturday, 29 November 2014

Film: Transcendence (2014)

Yet another film in which Christopher Nolan had a hand (albeit only as executive producer), so I was looking forward to this. To sum up; I found Transcendence had some good ideas but disappointing execution.

SPOILER WARNING: read no further if you want to watch the film, as this review contains spoilers, starting with a plot summary.

The focus is on Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a genius working on the development of AIs (artificial intelligences), who is fatally injured in an attack by modern-day luddites opposed to the development of such technology. Before he dies, his wife and fellow researcher Evelyn (Rebecca Hall, very good as usual) and his colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany) upload his mind into a powerful computer. The rest of the film contains multiple plot threads, as the disembodied Will Caster (surely a case of nominative determinism!) gradually extends his reach and power across the internet from a massive underground HQ he creates in a desert town, dramatically pushing forward the boundaries of science. The FBI becomes concerned with his increasing power and joins forces with the luddites to attack the HQ, while Evelyn, who is having increasing doubts about whether the uploaded Will is still her husband or a different being with Will's memories, is being tempted to join them. The climactic decision of the plot is whether or not Will's enemies should upload a computer virus that will destroy him, but at the same time bring about the collapse of our technological civilisation.

First, all credit to the film makers for acknowledging that these developments would be spread over several years rather than within the few days that Hollywood usually assumes that anything important takes, and for exploring some of the existential issues around the nature of a human mind uploaded to a computer. However, these genuine concerns become rather obscured by some silly sub-plots when Will's advanced medical science is able not only to cure people's ailments and immediately repair their bodies, but at the same time make them super-strong, and at the same time give him the power to take over their minds and control them. He also acquires the power to instantly repair any damaged equipment (or to destroy his enemies' weapons) by some sketchily explained means. In one ludicrous later scene a rag-tag band of luddites and FBI agents launch an attack on the vast underground complex using one ancient howitzer and a mortar. Fortunately, the final scenes do redeem the film to some extent.

There are genuine issues about AIs in general and uploading human minds into computers (should that ever be possible) in particular. I briefly explore some of the latter in my article On Immortality on this blog (link in the column on the left). Transcendence has a stab at some of them and is worth watching, but a really adult drama focusing on these issues is yet to be made.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Hidden by Benedict Jacka, and Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

Hidden is the fifth in Jacka's entertaining Alex Verus series concerning a magician in present-day London (the first four having been previously reviewed on this blog).  As usual, the story picks up where the last one left off with only a short time lapse; this is one series which must be read in the right order, anyone who plunges straight into Hidden without reading the earlier stories will frequently be baffled.

This time the focus of the plot is on Anne, the Life Mage who has appeared in earlier volumes, and we learn a great deal more about her history, personality and motivations as Alex battles to rescue her from the memorable shadow realm of Sagash, an equally memorable Dark Mage. Meanwhile, rumours are circulating about the reappearance of Richard Drakh, the formidable Dark Mage who used to be Alex's Master and still terrifies him.

The author continues to manage the difficult trick of maintaining what was so enjoyable about the first of the series (Fated, in case you're thinking of making a start) while introducing enough new elements to maintain the level of interest. A must-read for all of those who have enjoyed the series so far. Now I'm just waiting for the next one…


Moon Over Soho is the second of this author's Rivers of London series (the first, also called Rivers of London, having been reviewed here last December), and is also concerned with sorcery in present-day London. The hero and viewpoint character in this instance is Peter Grant, a police detective constable who turns out to have a potential talent for magic and finds himself assigned to a special unit, consisting of Detective Chief Inspector Nightingale and himself. Their purpose is to investigate crimes which appear to have a magical element, and Nightingale is both Peter's boss and his teacher in practicing magic.

The second novel continues the story from where it was left at the end of the first, and offers the same combination of expertise about London (always fun to recognise places mentioned and think "yep, been there"), what appears to be realistic police inside knowledge, and cynical deadpan humour. This time, one of the magical criminals is (loosely) a woman who has an extra set of teeth in a location which is a man's worse nightmare, while others suck the life out of jazz musicians to keep themselves young.

There are differences between the socerous scenarios developed by the two authors: Aaronovitch's London has very few magicians and these generally act as individuals, although there are river gods and other divine beings. In Jacka's version the city has many magicians, with a substantial heirarchical organisation. Both are enjoyable reads but Aaronovitch's stories are rather more gorily horrific.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Film: Interstellar (2014)

This one was the most anticipated film of the year for me, partly because Director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception) is one of my favourites, partly because I don't seem to have seen a traditional SF epic for a long time. These days movie SFF seems to consist mainly of superheroes (silly, if OK in small doses), with an occasional dose of horror (Prometheus) or space stories with rather unimaginative plots (Gravity). So I made a special effort and went to see Interstellar in an IMAX cinema.

I am pleased to report that it lived up to expectations, although it was rather more downbeat, desperate and gritty than I had imagined (I deliberately avoided reading any reviews beforehand). This review necessarily contains some spoilers, so if you like everything to be a surprise, stop reading and go and see it.

It is a very long film and the pace is quite slow, especially at the beginning (set several decades in the future) when the focus is on a rural part of the USA where farmers are desperately trying to cope with an environment which is sliding down the pan, with droughts, dust-storms and blights killing off the food crops one after another, and even the air gradually losing its oxygen. Humanity on Earth is slowly heading for an irretrievable disaster.

Enter Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), now a farmer but previously a NASA pilot. He is intrigued by what appears to be poltergeist activity in his young daughter Murphy's room, especially when she becomes convinced that some unknown being is trying to communicate with her. She manages to interpret a message – in the form of map coordinates. Cooper sets off to the location and discovers that while the steady decline of civilisation has left very few spare resources available, there are two parallel projects running which offer a last, desperate hope for humanity – to find a new world to live in by flying a spaceship to another galaxy through a large and stable wormhole which has conveniently appeared in orbit around Saturn, followed by developing anti-gravity to enable giant space-stations to carry people off the Earth. Manned missions had already been sent through the wormhole, and three of them had apparently landed safely on different worlds, but none had returned. There was just one ship left to send to find out what had happened to them. Cooper leads three other explorers plus an old military robot called TARS through the wormhole.

What they find on the other side brings them one problem after another and they are soon struggling to survive. In a last desperate measure they fly too close to a large black hole in order to try to find a way back, and catastrophe seems certain. But at this point the story shifts into a surreal adventure and the film ends on a vision of hope for the future.

The slow pace gives time to develop the characters who are all good, especially McConaughey, Mackenzie Foy as the young Murphy and the impressive Jessica Chastain as the older version. Michael Caine puts in an appearance, and Anne Hathaway is one of the astronauts. The visuals are brilliant as one might expect from this director (IMAX is definitely worthwhile), and the plot stretches the imagination in a way that used to be typical (in fact, the main appeal) of SF. There are echoes of 2001 here, and a little bit of Contact. The film is unusually emotional for an SF thriller, although that does involve some occasionally clunky and improbable dialogue (e.g. Anne Hathaway arguing the value of love in making important decisions). There is even an occasional moment of humour, mostly courtesy of TARS oddly enough. On the downside, there are some puzzling issues within the plot that prompted an "Eh, what?" reaction from this viewer. A more practical complaint is that the soundtrack volume was sometimes well above my comfort level. Despite this, Interstellar is a magnificent epic which promptly jumps into my top-ten list of best SF films, and every SF fan should see it.

Final major spoiler warning: I did have a problem with the conclusion concerning the nature of the force which seemed to be helping humanity, which if I understood it correctly involved a classic SF paradox; those who know Heinlein's 1941 short story "By His Bootstraps" will understand what I mean!

Saturday, 8 November 2014

A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny is most famous for the highly entertaining Princes in Amber fantasy series, but he published a wide range of other novels and shorter stories in a writing career that began while he was still at school in the 1950s and continued up to his death in 1995. A Rose for Ecclesiastes is not just the well-known novella, it is the title of a collection also containing three other long stories: The Furies, The Graveyard Heart and The Doors of his Face, the Lamps of his Mouth. I bought this book in 1969 and read it a couple of times, but it's four decades since I last opened it.

The Furies (1965). As the back cover says: "three handicapped hunters with more-than-normal powers track down a planet-burning space pirate". Intriguing but not, in my view, in the same elevated league as the others.

The Graveyard Heart (1964). The Set: an exclusive group of famous and immensely wealthy people who spend most of their time in frozen sleep, only waking occasionally to participate in extravagant parties which are broadcast worldwide. One observer becomes infatuated with a member of the set and is determined to join her, but discovers the cost of living such a life as the decades slip by.

The Doors of his Face, the Lamps of his Mouth (1965 - winner of the 1966 Nebula Award for Best Novelette). A first-person story set on Venus, told by a fisherman who is irresistibly drawn to attempts to capture a great beast of the oceans, a hundred metres long. Every attempt so far has failed despite the fortunes spent on them, but the latest touches the fisherman in a very personal way. Exactly how he is involved is gradually revealed as the story progresses.

A Rose for Ecclesiastes (1963). Mars has been reached – and found to contain Martians, a secretive race which allows little access to Earthmen. They agree to make an exception and invite Gallinger, a linguist and poet, to study their histories. The story of what he discovers and the events that follow is told by Gallinger, and contains one surprise twist after another.

These stories are clearly far more in the fantasy than SF camp, particularly the last two – portraying both Venus and Mars as habitable by unprotected people plus, in the case of Venus, containing huge oceans with massive sea monsters and, on Mars, native Martians who are human. When he wrote these stories it was well known that all of this was impossible but he was not concerned with scientific credibility. Unusually for an SFF writer of the period, what his stories really were about was people: their personalities and how they react in unique and, to us, fantastical circumstances.

What is most striking about Zelazny's writing is that his use of language is beautiful. It comes as no surprise that he also published poetry, as his prose in these stories is often poetic; rather more so than in his later and more popular Amber series. As was indicated by his many award nominations (he won at least sixteen awards, including six Hugos and three Nebulas) he was a writer of rare quality. His approach made a complete contrast to most well-known SF authors of the 1960s who were focused on ideas; the drama and mind-stretching excitement of the unknown. Roger Zelazny's very different style made a unique contribution to the genre.

For me, the one that stands out (in fact, the only one I recalled) is The Doors of his Face, the Lamps of his Mouth. Reading it again reminded me that this is one of my favourite shorter stories.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

TV – Alphas (2011), and Gotham (2014)

Alphas first appeared on the Syfy channel but is available on DVD in the UK. It sounded promising (I must have read a favourable review somewhere to put it on my list) so I gave it a try.

The series has a familiar theme: a psychologist is trying to help a group of people who have different supernormal abilities. One can conjure up great strength under stress, another can persuade people to do whatever she wants, a third can see electronic radiation enabling him to watch TV programmes without a TV and track phone calls visually, a fourth can focus her individual senses to an intense level of detail. The psychologist calls them "Alphas". These abilities attract official attention, particularly since there are many "wild Alphas" around posing various threats to society, and the Alpha team is the only way of countering them. But the existence of the team is itself under threat from suspicious authorities, who would like to see all Alphas locked securely away.

So we're in X-Men territory with a dash of Fringe and even Warehouse 13. There really isn't anything new in the situation but in that respect it's no different, for example, from the countless similar series in the detective genre; whether they succeed or fail depends on the characters and the writing. So far, while this one isn't outstanding it is good enough to for me to see the whole of the first series. Whether I will go on to watch the next one is an open question. I have found that all of the episodes tend to blur in the mind, none being especially memorable, so it's the development of the characters and their relationships which carry the series. 


Gotham is unusual in at least one respect – it is a US series appearing on UK TV only a couple of weeks after its first release. Effectively a prequel to the Batman franchise, this starts with Bruce Wayne as a young boy who witnesses the murder of his parents, but the focus is very much on detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and his efforts to track down the killer.

It is something of an oddity as, on the face of it, it is a straightforward murder mystery without any of the fantastic elements of Batman. Even though Catwoman (Catgirl?) lurks around the edges of the first episode and moves more centre-stage thereafter, she is no more than an agile young thief. On the other hand, the plot is not handled with the realism of a modern detective story; there is something stylised about it, a clear reflection of the comic-book origins. As a result, the characters are oversimplified to the point of caricature. The first couple of episodes were watchable enough despite this but, as with Alphas, they didn't entirely grab my attention so I'll have to see how it goes.