Sunday, 30 November 2008
Meanwhile here's a quick quiz. I'm not too obsessive about lists, but let's see if you think the way I do: place the six Star Wars films in order of quality, starting with the best. I'll post my choices in a few days.
Friday, 28 November 2008
It seems Čapek may have been on to something. While computers get their digital hands on our companies and transport networks, the robots are making their move too. While our attention has been distracted, over the last few years robots have quietly taken over the choiciest human jobs. I mean, now robots can be camel jockeys, conductors, wine tasters, seals, fishes or sharks - I mean, what does that leave for us?
Wednesday, 26 November 2008
Butterfly, Falling At Dawn - a short story by Aliette de Bodard, set in an alternative history where Aztec culture survived the European invaders becoming Greater Mexica. The plot here is a fairly straightforward whodunnit set in the near future - it's the characters and the setting that make this story stand out.
The editorial takes issue with "positive sf's cheerleaders" and makes it clear that, at least in Interzone, sf shouldn't ignore crises, or focus on technological fixes. Not sure if I agree or not. A change to the universe, say the introduction of a new tech, creates moral implications and potentials for accident or misuse - but the potential for good, particularly the most imaginative extrapolations, is also there to be explored. And there's a lot of negative sf that just seems to rehash the same 1984 scenario with minor variations. From a literary point of view I do accept there's a need for a certain amount of angst or discomfort to make a plot interesting. I just think sci-fi still has the potential to inspire as well as scare, and should be a place to find new and exotic ideas of any kind.
Tony Lee reviews the Colour of Magic DVD. Some quotes: "This is not an objective review...," "I have developed a numbingly phobic, debilitatingly allergic reaction to gurning wizards in floppy hats," "A pox on it's rancid cheesy cliches, lame sightseeing gags, telegraphed Tolkien twists, desperately overworked bits of aimless busyness, solipsistic remarks and throwaway pantomime blathering."
Monday, 24 November 2008
I can think of a number of explanations for this curiously personal announcement:
1. The computer is indeed responsible for scheduling trains and is taking responsibility for the decision, made by itself and possibly overruling human advisors, to cancel the train.
2. The computer is acting as a kind of confessor, having taken responsibility for the decision from its' human colleagues at South East after they have confessed their sins to it.
3. The computer, while not actually having taken the decision, has gained awareness of the inconvenience for its cold and frustrated passengers, and has become guilt-struck.
Any of the above imply a computer with an impressive level of emotional intelligence and self awareness way beyond anything I've heard of outside science fiction. Conversely, it hasn't escaped my attention that the computer might simply have been programmed to speak in this grammatically and contextually inappropriate way. In this case, if the apology is automatically generated or someone has pushed the "Apologise" button on their keyboard, but no apology has actually been spoken, does it count?
This event reminded me to stay on the lookout for signs of computers insidiously taking over the world. Today I came up against another computer - I was sent an inconvenient delivery time for a new desktop, and when I phoned a call centre in Limerick to rearrange it I was informed, by a woman with a beautiful but fear-tinged voice, that the decision to deliver at this time had been taken by a computer, and that there was no-one in the entire delivery company who had the authority to overrule it. With the UK news agenda dominated by Wossygate and Sargentgate I may have missed coverage of a robot revolution in the Republic of Eire.
Saturday, 22 November 2008
Thursday, 20 November 2008
in the fossil record allow Baxter to playfully include kilometer-wide pterodactyl "air whales" and some other surprises. Baxter follows the development of hominids and humans and is interested in the origins of human emotion, thought, behaviour and society rather than, say, the discovery of fire or the wheel. However the origins of painting, religion and sailing become part of the plot. Baxter also pulls no punches in documenting the destruction of the environment and the extinctions that have characterized all of human history, not just the modern era. The story extends through a near-future calamity into an eerie Hothouse-like scenario as the human era wanes.
Tuesday, 18 November 2008
It's not perfect. Few of the characters are likeable (or dislikeable) - mostly they're just bad guys trying to out-bad each other. It's worth sticking with Reynolds though as characterisation improves significantly through the later novels, and there are a few more plot twists ahead too... Easter-egg fans will enjoy looking out for Bowie references and other musical influences.
Sunday, 16 November 2008
I'm currently reading Hothouse by Brian Aldiss. Like Jack Vance Aldiss sets his novel in the distant future where the sun is close to dying. This is sci-fi and fantasy of a different kind though - the earth now belongs to the carnivorous and fast-moving descendents of the plants, with tree-running humanity one of just a handful of surviving animal species. It's a harsh reality - the members of the human tribe constantly face danger and death, while the vicious battles between different plants make the animal kingdom, or the human heyday, seem tame by comparison. Aldiss creates a world with detailed and internally consistent descriptions of the flora and fauna, and uses it to tell a story about the necessity, the inevitability and the fear of change. There is a great deal to uncover as the reader explores the setting, although much of this is lost on the protagonists who are only interested in their own survival.
Aldiss' setting has been criticised as implausible, but this is missing the point of the powerful and eerie central symbol of this novel - the tidally locked Earth and Moon and the webs of the Traversers connecting the two.
Friday, 14 November 2008
I came to Jack Vance through a newer author, Matt Hughes who has written several novels and short stories set in "the times before the End times," generally agreed to be earlier in Jack Vance's Dying Earth timeline. Hughes' stories again combine sci-fi and fantasy concepts, and are set in a decadent age where almost everything is known; humanity has expanded from a kingdom "The Archonate" into a collection of worlds "The Spray." Hughes writes with an extraordinary turn of phrase that I've only seen two other authors carry off - one is Patrick O'Brian, the other Charles Dickens. I can't quite put my finger on what these authors are doing but you can almost taste the sentences. Hughes also takes in some unusual but fascinating topics in addition to his world's decadent politics and con-artistry; many stories feature the adventures of noonauts travelling into and out of Jung's collective unconscious.
Thursday, 13 November 2008
This film worked for me for two reasons - firstly, it's only 90 minutes long (as it's supposedly recorded on an analogue camcorder cassette) but perfectly paced, and secondly, the director JJ Abrams is actually pretty good. It takes serious professionalism to simulate amateur filmmaking this way and still produce decent atmosphere and drama, and JJ's sense of timing is good enough to occasionally deliver actual shocks and thrills, something sadly rare in the horror genre.
Tuesday, 11 November 2008
In between bouts of work I kept myself sane by watching 5-minute films from the Sci-Fi London 48-hour film challenge. This was part of the 2008 festival, and I previously saw the winning entry, Factory Farmed, as it was screened before the premiere of Chemical Wedding. The win is well deserved - what stands out is the cinematography, with clever use of colour and location
to build highly atmospheric shots, together with a sense of mystery. I recognized the Westminster tube station doubling as a high-tech laboratory - wonder how they arranged this?
Most entries don't have this level of camerawork or atmosphere but are still highly enjoyable - there's a ubiquitous sense of fun, most teams seem to have got the main idea of this kind of film-making (keep it simple!) and have produced something watchable. There's a lot of originality and wit too. I particularly enjoyed Lesson One, by team Too Many Monkeys, about a unique approach to advertising and marketing. Each team was assigned a piece of dialogue to include - this team got "You could win £1000 to spend on your mistress" and the film pretty much takes this as its starting point and riffs on it. You won't like every film but at 5 minutes each you can find the ones you like fairly quickly.
The films can be found here. There's also a brief documentary about the competition.
I was hugely surprised to discover that my presentation at work came together and was very well received despite my brain running at about 5% capacity. I intend to enter next year's 48-hr challenge if I can get a crew together. [edited 17.4.09 - did actually enter! woo!]
Sunday, 9 November 2008
It takes real talent to take this starting point and screw up so badly and I take my hat off to this film which is too dull even for a Golden Raspberry. Subplots are introduced and abandoned (as the inventor is removed from the timeline lifts everywhere start to malfunction - but then they don't again) and while the base-jumping time-travel conceit should be a great metaphor for taking risks in life, this is ignored for the most part then used far too crudely at the end. Yes. I watched to the end, by which time I felt like jumping off a bridge myself but feared I might find myself back at the start of the film.
Friday, 7 November 2008
I've just finished reading Lifeboat. My final word - most of the book is perfectly paced, however in the last chapter there's suddenly a series of convoluted and unlikely plot twists - I think the enjoyment to be had from this book was definitely the journey rather than the destination. I was reflecting on this question as I started my next book - Jack Vance's classic The Dying Earth, a novel I've been meaning to read for ages - as I think the answer may be in the first chapter or even paragraph.
Wednesday, 5 November 2008
Tuesday, 4 November 2008
I wondered whether Harrison would slip an overpopulation subplot in - it was a regular theme in his solo novels e.g. Make Room Make Room, which led by way of a Charlton Heston film with a classic ending, to a scene in the Simpsons (episode: The Itchy and Scratchy Movie) where Homer, several decades into the future, enters a cinema and, on passing the kiosk, exclaims "Mmmmm, soylent green...."
Monday, 3 November 2008
I wanted to mention Homeworld, an old PC war game. This was welcomed with seriously good reviews and awards on its release but is now old news. What I wanted to point out was, apart from the simple gameplay and smooth interface, I was awe-struck by the graphics - despite polygon counts and texture densities so low you could run this game with only (only!) an 8-bit graphics card, the game conjured up images of spaceships that could easily fit on the cover of a Golden Age paperback.
I don't even know the artist - as in those innocent days the artist didn't even get a mention in the book. The composition reminded me of something, and a few Google searches later I found it - Turner's "Fighting Temeraire" depicting the decomissioning of a sailing ship, towed by a steam-powered tug, symbolizing the end of the Age of Sail and the rise of new technology - this is appropriate given the book's theme of the conflict for supremacy between two intelligent races.
Sunday, 2 November 2008
You can read Mish's review of the Handmaid's Tale here: http://mishscifimusings.blogspot.com/2008/10/margaret-atwood-and-science-fiction.html
Also fair to point out that in the first year of the revived series, the Doctor was Christopher Ecclestone. I enjoyed series one immensely and remember the disappointment at hearing that Ecclestone was leaving and that "Casanova" was to replace him... in fact, the regeneration was part of what gave series one it's dramatic structure and climactic ending.
But I want to end this post firstly with the point that with the 2009 special episodes with Tennant still to come, I'm actually talking about an event two years ahead as if it has just happened - how apt. Secondly, I'm just reflecting on how much I've enjoyed from the Tennant years - for instance right now I'm thinking of the thinly veiled references to Douglas
Adams (the dressing gown in the Christmas special, the 42 episode, the Starship Titanic episode...)