Monday, 27 December 2010

Poul Anderson, Trader to the Stars (1965)

A fix-up of three stories straddling the Astounding-Analog name-change: 'Hiding Pace' (1956) which appeared in the former, and 'Territory' (1961) and 'Master-Key' (1963) which appeared in the latter. It's readable, as Anderson always is, although his main character, the florid, obese, extrovert merchant-prince Nicholas van Rijn, starts annoying ('well what begobbled stupiding is it I must be dragged from my all-too-much work to fix up one for you, ha?') and gets worse ('well hokay you is a pretty girl with a nice figure and stuff even if you should not cut your hair so short. Waste not want not. I rescue you, ha?'). Presumably Anderson thinks all this chaff is colourful and endearing, but it made me want to pull my own teeth out with pliers.

Anyway, I read Trader to the Stars because I'm intrigued as to how an actual 'trader to the stars' would work (it's for something I'm thinking about writing). I start, I guess, from a gut-feeling that the vast costs of interstellar transport, combined with the fact that one is trading not with climate-and-geography-limited countries but entire habitable planets, would render conventional trading (shipping pepper from India to Europe, say) simply untenable. But perhaps other modes of trade might operate. Charlie Stross probably has a post on this, somewhere.

At any rate, Anderson's book is no help in that regard. His Van Rijn is indeed a trader, but one who moves in an improbable Dutch-Seventeenth-Century of the stars. When his cargos are mentioned, only ever in passing, they are things like fine wines and spices -- things which could surely be more cheaply fabricated on the target worlds. But maugre the fix-up title, trade is not the theme here. The three stories are actually exercises in problem-solving, and Van Rijn is a kind of Polesotechnic Poirot. The wrinkle is that, in place of the standard physics-and-engineering problem-to-be-solved so typical of Golden Age hard sf, the problems here have to do with social-engineering. Van Rijn cracks the riddle because he understands alien society better than anybody else.

'Hiding Place' isn't quite this: the premise is that Van Rijn's ship, damaged and pursued by merciless space pirates called Adderkops, can only escape if it can persuade an alien spaceship to fly them to safety. But humans have never interacted with these aliens before, and when their ship is boarded they have gone into hiding, in plain view -- they are carrying a space-zoo of various alien animals, and the actual pilots are pretending to be one of these. Humans can't operate the ship without the owner's co-operation; but none of the ten-or-so alien types on board seem to possess the physique or intellect to be interstellar pilots. The solution (that the pilots are actually two creatures in a master-blaster symbiosis) is quite neat. The other two stories, though, are more ideologically freighted. In 'Territory', aid-workers visiting a marvellously hostile frozen world have been doing well with the hunter aboriginals until the latter suddenly try to massacre them. Joyce Davison, who comes from a world where mutual cooperation is the norm, can't understand it. Van Rijn, who happens to be there too, explains: the aliens are pure carnivores, not omnivores like humans: 'your gabbling about planet-wide cooperation did not sit so well. I doubt they could really comprehend it. Carnivores don't make cooperations except on the most teensy scale. It isn't practical for them. They haven't got such instincts' [91]. OK: but in that case, I don't believe the natives would have evolved the human-like levels of intelligence they actually display, and I certainly don't believe they would be interested in trade (which, with Van Rijn winning the day, is where the story ends). Doesn't trade begin with a tradeable surplus, itself in turn a function of the shift from hunting to farming? But Anderson wants to twit the liberal idiocies of the do-gooders and communitarians, without sacrificing his own ideological committment to free trade. So in goes the thumb, into the story balance. Boo.

A similar state of affairs obtains in 'Master Key': Van Rijn is able to explain why a trading expedition to a jungle world went so violently wrong. The natives, a primitive but aristocratic feline sort called 'Yildivans' keep slaves called Lugals. Actually, one of the main motors of this story is Anderson giving himself the ideological fantasy-space to deprecate social structures larger than families ('the Yildivans haven't anything like a nation, a tribe, any sort of community [except] family groups' 114). His are properly noble savages, ultra individualists: 'occasional barter, occasional temporary gangs formed to hunt extra-large animals, occasional clashes between individuals, and that's about it.' At least in this story Anderson follows-through a little more, thought-experiment-wise: 'But hold on,' I objected. 'Intelligent races need more. Something to be the carrier of tradition, something to stimulate the evolution of the brain ... else intelligence hasn't got any biological function.' Quite right. But Anderson misses the actual point -- that intelligence itself is a product of longterm social determination and interaction. Instead he suggests the slave-race, the Lugals, somehow bridge the gap ('the Yildivans are the creators and innovators, the Lugals the communicators and preservers'). At the end we learn the Lugals are not slaves as such, but more like pets: superintelligent dogs. But the mouthfeel of the whole story is wrong, an ideologically tendentious fantasia bordering on the actively mendacious, and climaxing with a live-free-or-die peroration. 'We,' Van Rijn announces to his fellow-traders, 'are wild. We do what we do because we want to or because it is right ... If you made slaves of us, you would for sure not be wise to let us near a weapon.' Is there a 'but' coming?
But how many slaves has there been, in Earth's long history, that their masters could trust? Quite some. ... And how many people today is domestic animals at heart? Wanting somebody else should tell them what to do, and take care of their needfuls, and protect them not just against their fellow men but against themselves? Why has every free human society been so shortlived? ... he glared out across the city, where it winked and glittered beneath the stars, around the curve of the planet. 'Do you think they yonder is free?' he shouted. His hand chopped downward in scorn.
Oh, fuck off.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

DOCTOR WHO “A Christmas Carol” (2010)

I enjoyed this, certainly, and found myself moved, even, as the hideous elderly man embraced the beautiful young love-of-his-life and the first snow started falling. I've no idea why that should strike me as quite so touching. Perhaps my wife has some notion as to why. Anyway, this Stephen Moffat-scripted episode was an ingenious retooling of Dickens's Christmas Carol, smart, sometimes funny and sometimes touching. Here's the plot-summary from Wikipedia:
Amy and Rory, celebrating their honeymoon, are aboard a space liner with 4000 other passengers, flying out of control into a colonized planet shrouded by a cloud system controlled by a spire on the planet. The Doctor, alerted by Amy's distress call, lands on the planet in the TARDIS and tries to convince the miser Kazran Sardick to turn off the cloud controls, which are biologically locked to Kazran, but is unable to do so. Kazran, like his father, considers the rest of the population of the planet as cattle and has little care for the lives aboard the liner. When the Doctor arrives, Kazran refuses to release a young girl, Abigail, from cryogenic storage to her sister's family. Recognizing that Kazran's father has had a significant effect on Kazran's life, the Doctor devises a scheme based on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol to improve Kazran in the past and present so that he will help turn off the spire and allow the liner to land safely.
The notion of Abigail in stasis, with only a few days of life left to her and being taken out for very occasional special moments, is a metaphorically potent one -- although Moffat stole it from K W Jeter's Blade Runner sequel, The Edge of Human (1995) (where it makes more sense: Jeter's Rachel is a replicant with a built-in expiry date: Abigal only has some mysterious 'illness' that will keep her perfectly beautiful and then kill her after a set countdown. What? What-what? Couldn't the Doctor cure her? Anyway). Sometimes the plot creaked: I found it hard to swallow that a giant space liner could plummet through the atmosphere at re-entry speed for an hour -- (the clock chimes 11pm with the spacecraft in mid-plummet, and the Doctor notes 'we've only got an hour left!') -- without hitting the ground: for comparison, the Space Shuttle reentry speed is 25,000 mph: are we to believe this planet has an atmosphere 25,000 miles thick?* Also, I didn't buy the 'I can no-longer operate the Bio-locked controls, even though they were specifically designed to respond to my bio-signature, because the Doctor has turned me from miser to nicer' moment. Does the Bio-lock only work if the operator is in a bad mood? But niggles aside, this was fun.
*This looks like a more footling objection than I intend. The problem was not with the physics of re-entry, but with the fact that the crashing spaceship, introduced only to act as a narrative-tension-mcguffin, was over-prolonged with consequent diminution of its dramatic effectiveness.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Graham Joyce, The Silent Land (2010)

Graham is a friend of mine, so I can't pretend this is a wholly disinterested review; but were this short novel written by my worst enemy I'd have to concede how perfectly judged, in terms of tone and mood, it is. Young lovers Zoe and Jake are on a skiing holiday in the Alps when they are caught in an avalanche; they survive, but returning to the resort they find it eerily empty, not a soul about. It's not really a spoiler (because the reader twigs this early in the reading) that they've stumbled into a ghost story -- that this novel is more The Others than Ski Sunday -- except that one of the beautiful touches of The Silent Land is the slow-burning realisation the book cultivates that it's not about death, but life ('Zoe', the name of the main character, means life, of course). The back of my ARC notes that the film rights have already been sold, and if the film-makers can reproduce the beautifully judged, uncanny chill of this atmospheric novel, it will be a very notable film indeed.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Daft Punk, Tron: Legacy Soundtrack (2010)

A pendant to yesterday's post: the soundtrack to Tron: Legacy, by Daft Punk ('le punk fou' as I, but nobody else, likes to call them) is very good, perhaps my favourite SF music of the year.

It works well in context, but honestly I think works even better on its own as a stately half-orchestral-half-early-Vangelis-synthesiser blend of mood and musical structure. In part this is because there is a genuine dignity and expressiveness to its main theme. On the opening track, 'Overture', this gets cleanly stated over a nice synth bass hum. The theme is, of course, a rip-off: it takes the first two phrases from Aaron Copland's 'Fanfare for the Common Man' (shaving Copland's very first note off, for fun) and then, for the third phrase, replaces the original's splendid slow, downward arpeggio with multiple repeats of the second phrase, a semitone lower, or tone higher, here and there, before resolving the melody nicely, if obviously. But the second-handedness of this suits the retro theme rather well, and the truncation of Copland's three note opening to a two-note version carries with it a Last Post-y vibe that inflects the whole with a pleasant and elegaic melancholy. The rest of the album rings atmospheric and effective changes on this theme, and the blend of orchestra and old-school synth comes very nicely off, I'd say.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Tron: Legacy (2010)

Under two heads

Narrative and characters. This is a stupid movie, its plot vacuous to a degree hard to believe. Kevin Flynn (played by Jeff Bridges) has created a virtual world called the Grid, and set up an e-clone of himself called ‘Clu’ (played by a Plasticine Golem Caricature of Jeff Bridges) to run it. But Clu has turned into a fascist dictator, and Kevin has become trapped inside his creation. In the real world everyone assumes he is dead-- his now grown-up son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) says ‘he’s either high in some bar in Puerto Rico Costa Rica, or dead’, before adding, confusingly, ‘or both.’ Sam is now a young hunk of twentisomethingness, his 'personality' approximated from an improbable mix of playboy swank, parcours physical skill and cliché wounded heart. He gets a page from his Dad (a pager-message that is, not a sheet of paper), and following this up, via a magical video games arcade and a laser cannon powered by narratons (which is to say: with a wave of the screenwriter's wavy hand) young Sam finds himself inside the Grid. Straightaway he’s seized by Clu’s quasi-fascist police, forced to compete in Tronny gladiatorial to-the-death games whilst Clu watches, survives against incredible odds—including a mano-a-mano deathfight with a video master-warrior called, unless my ears deceived me. Rizzler—and is rescued by young Tronnie called Quorra (Olivia Wilde looking very toothsome). She drives him away to his father's covert pad which, for a secret hideaway, was (I thought) rather ostentatiously displayed, all bright-lit ceiling-to-floor windows, on the side of a huge mountain directly facing the headquarters of the evil Clu. From here the plot got stupider and stupider. Amongst the more egregious holes were:

The twist that the page summoning Sam into the Grid was sent not by Kevin but by Clu, as a strategy for winning the game—in which case, you have to wonder why the first thing Clu does with the just-summoned Sam is immediately try to eliminate him in gladiatorial combat.

The portal between the Grid and reality. This, we're told, is located on the far horizons of the Grid (‘your father didn’t want stray programs wandering through it’, says Quorra—even though exit is only possible with the magic key of Kevin’s own disk) although Sam himself entered through this same portal, arriving not on the far horizons but right in the middle of Trontown. Tronto. Trondon. Why not go back the way he came?

Martin Michael Sheen’s performance. He plays the supposedly sinister-camp owner of a cyber cabaret (an if-you-will ‘cyberet’). This is not a plot hole per se, but it is just awful. Awful.

The Martin Sheen character works for Clu, and presumably has done so for a while. He serves his master well: betraying Kevin and Sam and delivering Kevin's cosmic master-key. In return, Clu blows up him, and his club, and everyone inside. It's not explained why. Perhaps that's because it makes no sense.

A race of aboriginal e-beings (what? how? what?) who are somehow already there inside the Grid even though the Grid was invented by Kevin, and who are backstory-mentioned at one point in the movie only to be backstory-disposed-of two minutes later, a staggering genocide, leaving only one survivor, Quorra herself. Like -- what? What the fuck?

Tron himself. Unable either properly to revisit, or to let well alone, the film introduces the character ‘Tron’ in a desultory way, has him fight for the baddies, convert randomly to the goodies instants before being left, literally in midair, falling towards something, it’s not spelled out what: an awkwardly literalised loose end.

Sam, Dad and Quorn take an e-train across the wildnerness to reach the portal; but the freight being transported is people (e-people, at any rate), who are there to be turned into stormtroopers to invade the real world! Since operating in our world requires, you know, corporeal existence, and since these soldiers lack that, it’s never made clear how this will work. Presumably the narraton-gun, working in reverse, magically gifts strings of zeros-and-ones with calcium, blood vessels and blood, nerves, lymph, muscles, skin and all the rest of it.

A root problem is that once the film goes into the Grid it forgets that the Grid exists as the metaphorization of data, and treats it instead as just another place; a kind of high tech Faeryland. When he arrives, Sam is kitted out for gladiatorial combat by four slinky programs in fetish gear and stacked heels. This, we assume, is their function: they modify ('dress') programs that are designed to interact competitively ('fight') so as to enhance them. But later, after escaping the arena and returning to Trontown (Trondheim, Trumptron) Sam meets one of these slinky programs (Beau Garrett) wandering the streets under an umbrella. Because that’s what computer programs do, inside your laptop! They work for a portion of the day, and then they clock off to go wandering about the motherboard, idly looking to pick up other programs! And whisk them away to a fetish club!

The CGI-animated young Jeff Bridges is as poorly rendered as you have heard. But in a way I found the old Jeff Bridges more puzzling. For a long time I looked at him, thinking ‘you remind me of somebody … who is it?’ which is puzzling only in the sense that he didn't look like or patricularly remind me of Jeff Bridges. The penny dropped about halfway through; in this role he looks like Terry Gilliam, with a dash of older Rip Torn. It’s surprisingly distracting.

Look. This is a great movie. The design is great, the cinematography is great, the style is just superb. The pastiche of the latter scenes of 2001 in particular was beautifully incongruous; the machines and the costumes were supercool. Of course, the styling was retro; but that’s a feature, not a bug. Because SF only appears to be about the future; it is actually always about the past – Star Wars (also inventively pastiched in this movie) has more in common with the Dam Busters and medieval Japan than any future space empire; Philip K Dick writing in the 1960s and 1970s always about 1950s US suburbia, Dune taking us back to medieval Arabia rather than forward into the future. And so on. This movie understands that, at least on the level of its visual logic. And what a visual logic! The eye could feast upon the neon glory, exquisite design and natty devices for hours and hours, irrespective of the shoddy plot.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (2010)

Oh, Paolo Bacigalupi, this is very good to find!
I can hardly misconceive you; it would prove me deaf and blind;
For at last I've read your novel, clocked the 'up' it seeks to wind.

Your genetic engineering makes a tasty premise; Thai
's rarely heard in science fiction (something we should modify)
And your world-building is nifty, when the oil has gone bye-bye.

Ay, because the setting's vivid, teeming and believable,
. . . Varied characters and tensions, a corrupted carnival:
I was never east of Europe—it's as if I saw it all.

But the Geisha is a problem: cheeks so round and lips so red,—
Sexbot who cannot avoid enjoyment whilst abused in bed:
As critique of exploitation, this, I'd say, is underfed.

All the violence she endures is sexualised—a racist blend
(Read what Said says in Orientalism on that) and
Contradicts the (quote) 'redemptive violence' of her story's end.

Still, five hundred pages finished. Oh, they praised you, it is true!
"Bravo Paolo! that was SF! Worthy of hullaballoo!
"Here's the Nebula, the Campbell, Locus,—half a Hugo too"

As for Thailand and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,
Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:
How much clockwork's left, I wonder, when the winding has to stop?

Saturday, 18 December 2010


....aand we're back.

I've finished writing the novel I was writing; it's now with my editor, to whose sage and perceptive comments I am looking forward. That means I have a little more leisure for (for example) blogging, and shall do so. Kicking off tomorrow with a review of Irish writer Paul O'Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl -- a review of which, by me, also appears in today's Guardian newspaper.