The Value of Science Fiction

By Hill – Giuseppe Gerbino (Self-published work by Hill) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Science fiction is often given a bad name.  It can have connotations of strange people in jumpsuits or bizarre prosthetics, sprouting technobabble, involved with stories which have no relation to the modern world.  Yet, I believe that science fiction offers an opportunity to look at our world from a different and new perspective.  Your Great Gatsbys or Macbeths may give a deep commentary on the world we live in and human nature, yet they’re inevitably constrained by being stuck within that which they seek to criticise.  Science fiction can remove itself and look down on these issues, which makes it a unique platform for expressing such comments.

This post has been prompted by reading Iain Banks’ Consider Phlebas, which I’ll focus on – although much of this will apply to other science fiction work.  Consider Phlebas covers a wide array of themes and idea.  The most immediately apparent is war; the book is set during a galactic war between two groups: The Indirans and the Culture.  We see a form of total war, seemingly without boundaries, as entire planets are destroyed and races wiped out.  This is the logical extension of human warfare.  During the 19th and 20th centuries we ‘advanced’ from a form of war involving large armies, where the result would usually be decided on the battlefield, to a situation where factions would try to win at whatever the cost.  Wars became more a matter of crippling the enemy’s economy rather than routing their armies which, through aerial bombings and the use of submarines, had a direct impact on the civilian population.  This developed into the utilisation of mass destruction, whether through nuclear weapons, chemical or biological, to achieve a victory.  In Consider Phlebas, Banks pursues this to its logical conclusion.  The destruction of planets is a terrifying concept, but largely because you can imagine it would actually happen if people had the capability to do such a thing.

This commentary is less subtle in places; the final act of the story is set on a proscribed ‘Planet of the Dead’, in this case a preserved world which perished during a nuclear war.  The characters journey through underground bunkers, the only remnants of a civilisation which destroyed itself.  They could easily be burrowing into the bowls of the Earth at some distant time in the future*.

The Indirans and the Culture are fighting almost purely on ideological grounds.  The Indirans are a religiously devout, warmongering race, while the Culture have developed a secular, anarchist, planned consumerist economy which seeks to extend its influence across the galaxy.  Conflicts between ideologies is another fascinating aspect of human nature we’ve seen develop in the 20th century, which Banks captures in his novel.  There’s a brilliant line where the protagonist Horza, fighting on the side of the Indirans, describes a seemingly innocuous bit of technology as “the real representative of the Culture on this planet.”  This line resonates with anyone who has ever drunk a bottle of coke or eaten in a Macdonalds.  Imperialism by commercialism against imperialism by military force are ideas which have conflicted in human history, which Banks shines new light on by portraying in a new scenario.  I found myself siding with the Culture, which is a testament to the realistic civilisation Banks forced considering the story is narrated from a viewpoint biased against them.

There’s another small, easily missed mention to ideologies I quite enjoyed.  After a raid on what they expected would be an unarmed temple was repelled, the crew of the Clear Air Turbulence discover that it was situated on the border between two warring states, one Socialist and one highly religious.  No other details are given, but I love the possibilities for stories that creates.

Technology is another area where science fiction thrives.  The image I chose for this is an artistic rendering of the Culture’s Orbitals which, as you can see, is a remarkable idea.  They serve as artificial worlds for people to reside on, equipped with terrain, climates, ecosystems, etc.  They look utterly bizarre and totally artificial, yet I could imagine how they would actually work.  I’d question the economic viability of such structures when there’s a multitude of planets to terraform and explore, but that’s another issue.  Perhaps the best technological prediction in the book is that of drones, fully sentient machines who are considered individuals – to destroy a drone is tantamount to murder in the Culture’s eyes.  This is explored wonderfully in Consider Phlebas.  My favourite instance was the drone Jase, which develops an infatuation on Fal ‘Ngeestra.  This is never developed, but just the small reference to Jase taking a sound recording every time Fal laughs tells us so much about the depth of these drones’ personalities.

It’s no secret that technological predictions, above all else, have made an impact in the real world.  The main example I can think of is Arthur C. Clarke pretty much inventing the idea of geostationary satellites, a good decade or so before they became reality.  You can see more here.  Today, ideas like space elevators, which have so far been imagined only in science fiction, are perfectly plausible.

These are just a few examples of how science fiction can be immensely relevant to our modern world.  This is why the genre, along with fantasy, has always existed in some form and I expect always will.  There’s never an end to the things it can give insights into, forcing us to see things in ways we might not expect or be prepared for.

*In the epilogue Banks reveals that the events take place in our past, yet the simlarity remains.

 

Advertisements

Aspidistras and Money

Contains spoilers.

Two weeks ago I finished reading Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell, published in 1936.  As with most things he wrote, the issues he raised in the novel have lingered in my mind long since returning it to the library.  It focuses on the life of Gordon Comstock, a part-time bookseller and poet who descends into a life of squalor and poverty.  While not as revolutionary or powerful as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four – Orwell admitted that, somewhat fittingly, he wrote the book largely because he was in need of money and claimed to be dissatisfied with the final edit – I would argue that it takes a critical look at society just as effectively.

The main theme of Aspidistra is, of course, poverty.  Never one for subtlety, Orwell shoehorns in references to the topic wherever possible, but the nature of poverty allows him to get away with it.  Throughout the novel are constant repetitions regarding Gordon’s lack of money; he is ever-aware of the coins in his pocket, he does mental calculations for every transaction he makes – every aspect of his life is ruled by money.  Through such basic repetition, Orwell gets his point across that we live in a society ruled by what he terms ‘The Money Gods’.   How shocking it is to have the dream of capitalism pulled away to reveal the murky truths hidden belief.  To follow a lifestyle where Gordon must turn down almost all social invitations, including pub gatherings, journeys to the countryside or meals, because they require him to spend money he doesn’t have.  For those of us who have never been at such a poverty line it truly is horrifying to consider how prevalent worries about money can be.

Arguably, Aspidistra is written as a comedy.  The way in which Gordon becomes obsessed by money is so unrealistic as to be comical, yet it does highlight how consuming poverty can be.  The most interesting part of the book is when Gordon unexpectedly gets sent a cheque from a magazine he sent poems to.  He begins rationally, planning to save and repay his debts, but by the day’s end he has squandered it all; on alcohol, transport, his girlfriend Rosmary, a prostitute – even his wealthy friend Ravelston – and finds himself in prison the next day.  As someone incredibly scrupulous with money I find this behaviour difficult to comprehend, yet it’s utterly realistic and the sort of actions I’ve seen displayed time and time again.  It’s not a case of “the proles can’t handle money,” but the result of handing someone the opportunity of a brief, glimmering escape from crushing poverty.  Therefore, it can be surmised that poverty breeds self destructive behaviour.  Never is this clearer than in Gordon’s eerily prophetic yearnings to see London destroyed by foreign bombers.

There are a couple of flaws with the book, however.  Most notably is that Gordon’s poverty is self-inflicted, as he actually once had a decent job working for an advertising company and throughout the novel faces the possibility of returning.  Fair enough, I can appreciate his disgust for such a job and his reasons for leaving in an attempt to defy the defy the Money God, but this does, in my opinion, somewhat limit the impact.  Is is true poverty if you have an escape route?  Much better to have had Gordon suffering from rapid unemployment and poor working conditions, I’d have thought.  It comes across less of a criticism of capitalist economics and more the character study of a slightly deranged man.

Also, I take issue with the suggestion that only two options were open to Gordon: that he could either live by the Money God or reject the system and live in complete poverty.  Orwell’s message is almost ruined by the resolution of the novel – Gordon returns to his job at the advertising company, and therefore has to submit to the Money God, symbolised by throwing his poetry manuscripts into a drain and buying an aspidistra, that symbol of middle-class money worship.  What is Orwell trying to say?  A Democratic Socialist to his death, as a person he clearly wouldn’t have supported Gordon’s decisions yet he never provides any condemnation through the narrative.  Thing is, life rarely works in absolutes and I believe Gordon didn’t have to take such an extreme route either way.  Why couldn’t he have returned to the job but continued with the poetry in his spare time, resolved to resign the moment he could make a decent income from writing?  While most of the novel is brilliance, after reading the ending I could see why Orwell was ashamed of the book.

The only other option vaguely mentioned is Ravelston’s vague Marxist theories of tearing down the capitalist system altogether and establishing a Socialist State.  This, I suspect, is closer to Orwell’s own views, yet it’s discredited whenever mentioned.  I accept that political apathy is another byproduct of poverty and this is a point Orwell expressed well, but to expand on this option for Gordon would have gone some way to giving the conclusion the depth it lacked.

Criticisms aside, it’s remarkable how relevant Aspidistra remains today.  One opinion it has caused me to rethink is the morality of tipping.  It was actually another of Orwell’s books, Homage to Catalonia, which first made me wonder whether tipping is right.  He described the Communist/Anarchist (the ideologies were diverse and vague) revolution in Barcelona where, among other rules, tipping workers was banned.  This supposedly coincided with the emancipation of workers, whereupon tipping would be considered a bourgeoisie insult.  It has always been my opinion that the introduction of, say, a living wage would be much more preferable than making people rely on tips for an income.  Of course I do tip because I know how underpaid many workers in the service industry are, and Aspidistra has reinforced this for me.  It’s very much like giving money to beggars in that we shouldn’t have to do it, that there should be provisions from the state to make such actions unnecessary, yet until that happens to do nothing would be even worse.

Overall, Keep the Aspidistra Flyingis a very engaging book which can truly change your perspective on society and economics.  I wonder how long it will continue to be relevant for?

Exam Results!

I received my exam results today – my last ever encounter with the Scottish Qualifications Authority.  It will be like losing a difficult and demanding friend, but one who has stuck with me throughout many difficulties.  Anyway, I had the crazy idea of filming myself discovering the results on camera, which you can watch here.

I’ll now just pass you onto a couple of links I promised to upload a while back:

English dissertation: http://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218339/
History dissertation: http://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218347/
The British Revolutionhttp://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218366/
The Lightning Strike: http://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218368/

The Hunger Games [Film] (Review)

Contains spoilers.

I’ve just recently been re-watching this film before and, my word, it’s good.  Adapted from the first book of Suzanne Collins’ hit trilogy (which dominated my list of favourite books read in 2012, taking the 2nd, 3rd and 6th places), it’s been a box-office hit, becoming the 59th highest grossing film of all time* and has the 9th highest earnings from the opening day in North America.  It was directed by Gary Ross, and produced by Lionsgate films.

Perhaps the most obvious reason for the film’s brilliance is its writing.  Every now and then a story comes along which entranced the imagination of the young and old alike; The Hunger Games achieved this with most success since, I would argue, Harry Potter.  The source material is fantastic, featuring an engaging, suspenseful plot with well-developed, realistic characters.  It’s full of detailed, ingeniously paced action scenes which are easy to be translated into film, but also complimented with substantial themes and a message that’s relevant today.  With such quality of a book to go on, it would have taken a lot for the film to fail.  I was particularly impressed by the dialogue: every line felt breathed into life by an actual person, rather than the scripted sequences common in other films.  Such heavily ‘scripted’ dialogue can compliment the film, as is the case with the Harry Potter films, but here the rawness of the dialogue compliments the gritty tone Ross went for.

Of course the best dialogue in the world couldn’t succeed if the acting talent is weak, but fortunately the film excels in this department also.  The part of Katniss needed to be perfect to truly sell the film and fortunately Jennifer Lawrence delivered on the front.  She made Katniss’ fear, her love, her hope and her determination believable.  One of many examples was a sequence on the train to the Capitol after the reaping.  I imagined the character to be plainer and less likeable but Lawrence’s portrayal stands up well to my pre-conceived ideas.  She had no dialogue yet managed to convey every emotion and thought Katniss experienced.  Josh Hutcherson portrays the charismatic Peeta, and of all characters is just how I imagined the part to be played; understated but believable.  Woody Harrelson is great as the drunken mess that is Haymitch but, like the character, can effortlessly switch to being cunning and sincere.  Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci and Liam Hemsworth all ‘get’ the characters of Effie, Caesar and Gale, too.  We didn’t see much of Donald Sutherland as the antagonist President Snow, but he brings such power to the role that I look forward to seeing in future films.

A lot of people have criticised Ross’ direction of looking cheap and having an irritating fixation on handheld, shaky camera shots.  I shared these thoughts initially but, upon rewatching, have realised what Ross was trying to do.  It’s supposed to look cheap, raw, and real.  He saw that the book is entirely driven by the perspective of its narrator and sought to emulate that narration in the film.  To have created a slick, beautiful world would have lost the point.  That said, every shot slots in perfectly into the film and exists for a reason; each movement is calculated, deliberate.  The pacing is also fantastic – even knowing what happens I can’t help but become dissolved into the screen, reacting with every emotion Katniss experiences.  I feel her fear, her jubilation, her suffering.  My one criticism is that the film devotes a bit too much time to the first half and, arguably, comes close to glorifying features like Katniss’ costumes, Capitol glamour, etc.  It’s not so much that the first half dragged but that the second felt rushed.  Rue and Katniss’ relationship in particular just glossed by, depleting (though certainly not ruining) the impact her eventual death had.

The music, too, is divine.  From the haunting vocal track in district 12 to the majestic Panem anthem, it seamlessly compliments the film and has an individual identity.  James Newton Howard has definitely planted himself on my list of favourite film composers.

Overall, The Hunger Games is an utterly brilliant film worthy of high praise indeed.  I await with excitement the next film in the franchise, Catching Fire.

Catching Fire Theatrical Trailer

Contains mild spoilers but not, in my opinion, anything that would ruin the film.

The full trailer for the second film in the Hunger Games Trilogy (of four films), Catching Fire, has been released!  You can watch it here.

I’m really excited for this film for the reasons I mentioned in my write-up for the teaser trailer back in April.  You can never fully judge a film by its trailer, which is in many ways an artform of its own, but I think we can glimmer a bit of insight into how Catching Fire may differ from The Hunger Games from it.  We know it’s being directed by Francis Lawrence, replacing Gary Ross – he certainly has a tough act to follow – who, I’m guessing, appears to be taking a more cinematic approach to the film.  Ross intentionally made The Hunger Games a rough, very handheld adventure from Katniss’ viewpoint.  Perhaps as the story begins to take a larger significance and move away from being solely Katniss’ experiences this is the natural route.

I’m also pleased that the trailer appears to be focusing on the message of the story.  There’s a temptation to glamourise the film, discuss Effie Trinket’s stunning fashion style (which completely defeats the point of her; she’s supposed to be hideous), and turn this into a Twilightesque love story.  Instead the trailer emphasises that trouble is brewing in Panem – that the social order is slowly beginning to catch fire from the spark Katniss provided.

That said, I have one issue with the trailer.  Structurally the novel is very similar to the first book, so therefore the film will inevitably be too.  This is fine – the events occur under completely different circumstances and have different significance.  However in the trailer, for simply a casual viewer of the films it will appear in some ways to be a carbon copy of the first film, with even the very same shots and lines being included.  Again, when you actually watch the film (I hope) each of these scenes should highlight a difference, but it’s difficult to get that across in the trailer.  This is why it’s possibly a mistake to focus entirely on the first half of the film, though I can appreciate why the action-packed second half is being kept under wraps.

I can’t wait to watch it, anyhow! *cough* IN EDINBURGH *cough*.

The Hunger Games vs Battle Royale

Contains spoilers.

After reading the entire Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins  over a weekend roughly a year ago, I became aware of the Battle Royale franchise, created over a decade ago by Japanese writer Koushun Takami.  Both deal with the same grisly topic: a group of teenagers thrown into an arena forced to battle one another to the death (actually, this is a horrific concept; how did it ever become so popular?!).  Collins has been accused of stealing the idea from Takami though she claims to have never heard of the franchise.  I was able to compare them myself when I found the manga at my local library and dove through them.  My clear favourite is The Hunger Games, though that’s mostly because I struggled with the sickeningly graphic content of Battle Royale, often skimming entire chapters to avoid it.  But this aside, there are various interesting points of comparison.

The stories differed in their treatment of characters.  The Hunger Games spent a large amount of time developing the central characters of the trilogy, forcing the audience to really invest in their struggle.  Battle Royale, in contrast, would develop each character to the same extent and then, in most cases, kill them off shortly afterwards.  This created a ‘shock factor’ but became tiring after a while, making me reluctant to care about any of the characters.  The Hunger Games did this too, most prominently with Rue, but I feel Collins handled it better.  However once the characters had been established it’s up for debate which franchise dealt with them better.  I think they’re generally equal in this respect; The Hunger Games’ Katniss, Peeta, Gale and Prim are all very rounded characters, while a significant number of supporting characters also seem to have depth.  I would argue that Battle Royale does well in establishing Shuya, Noriko, Shogo, Mimura, Sugimura, Kiriyama and Mitsuko, but the rest come across as a little two-dimensional, having just one defining characteristic such as ‘frosty’ or ‘elitist’.

In Battle Royale there’s a clearer divide between the students who are ‘playing’ the game and those who refuse to go along with it.  This idea is briefly present in The Hunger Games where you have ‘Careers’, who volunteer in order to win, then just those who are scared and run, but I do like Battle Royale’s focus on battling the government.  Mimura makes a bomb to target the base of operations and the story ultimately ends with the slaughter of the game planners.  Katniss’ desire to simply keep her family alive fits with her character and I’m not criticising it, but as a reader the rebellion in Battle Royale was more fulfilling.  That said, the subtle approach of The Hunger Games is also commendable.  Katniss causes riots in District 11 through her televised honouring of Rue in death, and the country is brought to the brink of a full-scale uprising after she and Peeta attempt suicide to deprive the government of a winner.  This develops in the subsequent novels, with a large group of tributes in Catching Fire refusing to ‘play’ and planning an escape.  So it’s difficult to say which approach I preferred.

One issue I had with the characters of Battle Royale was the attitude towards female characters.  With a couple of exceptions they were generally treated either as weak characters dependent on the boys or sexual objects.  This particularly bothered me every time Shogo told Shuya to “protect Noriko.”  It was Noriko who ultimately shot Kiriyama, fatally wounding him, but this is the exception.  Katniss, in contrast, must be among the most resilient and able characters in the entire trilogy.  Characters in general felt more realistic in The Hunger Games – girls were neither simply ‘weak’ nor ‘strong’ and the male characters ranged from fierce bullies like Cato to the softer personality of Peeta.  A contrast might be made between Peeta and Shuya, both being idealistic and loving characters.  I can’t pick a preference between them.

Both stories present fascinating dystopian worlds.  The Hunger Games is set far in the future in a society built from the ashes of the USA, while Battle Royale is set in Japan in roughly the present day that developed along an alternative timeline.  Both use their respective games to instill terror in the population and keep them in their place.  Though I couldn’t help noticing the dangers of both systems in provoking the population into an uprising.  This concept is eventually explored in The Hunger Games, where Katniss’ actions do provide ‘the spark’ for civil war.  This indicates that Panem is near the verge of collapse by the beginning of the story, which I believe is partly a consequence of The Hunger Games providing a *major* grievance for the non-Capitol majority.  The Capitol’s strategy to rule solely through fear is what ultimately destroys it – though that’s a discussion for another day.

Interestingly, I believe the original Japanese version of Battle Royale does not include The Program being a TV show.  This solves many inconsistencies I found in the (somewhat sloppy, I have to say) English version.  This could be one reason why the government is more stable; The Program is less prominent and more of a myth.  Like how the Nazis deliberately released prisoners from concentration camps to spread stories and fear throughout the population, The Program serves as a stick to batter fear into the population, preventing them from speaking out in case their children are targeted.  Indeed, there are no signs that the government is under any threat throughout the story.   The Hunger Games explores the political and social situation of Panem more thoroughly than in Battle Royale, but both provide fairly realistic societies.  However it’s worth noting that schemes like The Hunger Games or The Program have never to my knowledge actually been tried in history; the closest example I can think of is forcing slaves to fight to the death in Ancient Rome.

In terms of the world outside of the totalitarian state, Battle Royale is a clear winner.  I was always frustrated by The Hunger Games’ lack of any detail regarding other countries in the world.  Despite being set in a semi-post apocalyptic world, they live in a mostly functioning society which would suggest that the planet is capable of supporting life elsewhere.  I don’t see why they shouldn’t have the capabilities to contact these other nations.  It makes the story simpler and perhaps more coherent when Panem is the only country, but it’s less convincing.  On the other hand I enjoyed the discussion in Battle Royale about escaping to the USA, and the idea that Japan was viewed by the rest of the world as a crazy, rogue state.  It’s also hinted that the world doesn’t know about The Program, suggesting the depth of Japan’s hermit status – rather like North Korea in our world today.  Battle Royale ends with Shuya and Noriko successfully escaping to the USA, though I’d like to have seen more of the international reaction to their testimonies.  So neither is perfect in this field.

Overall, both The Hunger Games and Battle Royale provide great portrayals of the same concept.  I can’t comment on the way they developed the ideas due to one being a trilogy of novels and the other, in the form I read it, being a manga.  As I said my overall preference is for The Hunger Games, but Battle Royale certainly takes a different perspective on many themes.  Both are worth reading, though Battle Royale isn’t for the faint of heart.

Final ratings:

  • The Hunger Games: 9.5/10
  • Battle Royale: 7.5/10

Related article:

  • See this essay for a a similar comparison which comes to a contrary conclusion.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by… J. K. Rowling?

This story fills me with joy.  J. K. Rowling, known of course for the spectacularly successfully Harry Potter series of novels between 1997 – 2007, and also The Casual Vacancy last year (which I’m in the minority for loving), has released a third book.  Why no hype?  Why did nobody know of this?  It turns out she’s been using a pseudonym.

The Cuckoo’s Calling was quietly published earlier this year in April by an author called ‘Robert Galbraith’.  It’s a crime novel and received wide critical acclaim, with many reviewers expressing surprise that a first-time author could produce a work of such quality.  It has now been revealed that this was, in fact, the work of J. K. Rowling.  Speaking to the Sunday Times, she said:

“Being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience.  It has been wonderful to publish without hype and expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”

I find this story incredibly amusing.  It’s boosted my already-high respect for Rowling, disproving any cynical claims that she’s “only in it for the money.”  I can easily understand why she chose to do this; The Casual Vacancy was, wrongly in my opinion, unfairly judged by a comparison to Harry Potter.  Every established artist’s work will be compared to their former work, but this went further.  Despite being a very decent book it received harsh criticism by people who, I suspect, were hoping for another Harry Potter.  How liberating it must have been for Rowling to escape that!  I’m pleased to see The Cuckoo’s Calling getting such positive reviews, which I hope will discredit everyone bent on labeling her a one-hit wonder.   I, for one, look forward to reading it!