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.

 

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Source Code [2011 Film] (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

Knowing nothing about it, I happened to watch Source Code a few weeks ago at a party.  It’s very rare for me to begin watching a film with absolutely no knowledge of its content, cast or crew but here I was completely in the dark.  It’s worth considering how this might affect our opinion of a film.  Should its publicity or reputation be factored into the overall film experience?  I found it quite refreshing here to be able to judge the film purely on its own merits, only finding out other details later (like that it was directed by David Bowie’s son!). Yes, Source Code was directed by Duncan Jones and released in 2011.

Being in an age where the science fiction genre in film is dominated by high-budget, infuriatingly dense blockbusters – I may have mentioned this before – where Transformers, Iron-Man, The Avengers and Avatar are all in the top ten highest-grossing films of all time (though the list looks slightly better when adjusted for inflation), a simple, idea-based science fiction film is always a breath of fresh air.  Source Code tackles the idea of a machine which can send a consciousness back in time to relive the final 8 minutes of a person’s life.  Here, Captain Colter Stevens finds himself in the body of Sean Fentress on a train which was destroyed in a terrorist bombing.  He relives this experience again and again as he is tasked with finding the culprit, meanwhile trying to discover the circumstances of his ‘death’.

I’m highly impressed with the way the film gradually teases us with information and answers.  The revelations that Colter is clinically dead besides minimal brain function, that Goodwin can only see his words written on a screen and then the final, shocking revelation of just how wounded he really is all brilliantly develop the concept.  This occurs alongside a general shifting of perspective from Colter to the other characters, which is achieved effortlessly.  Then, everything is perfect about the final revelation that the source code creates parallel worlds.  The tone, the acting, music…  It proves that you don’t need gratuitous senseless action or violence to make a film interesting.  Where there is violence it serves a purpose, is never repetitive and advances the film.  This alone makes Source Code a far superior film to most others I’ve seen recently.

But that’s not all the film has going for it.  It’s intelligently written and Jones’ direction is extremely skilled yet subtle.  After watching the film I realised the story had taken place over just three sets, but amazingly never felt constrained or claustrophobic.  Jones and his crew made so many good decisions on even the small things, like creating a sense of fluidity with great over-the-shoulder shots and seamless movement.  The train was so realistic, with either the set or the camera having a slight jiggle and the scenery rushing past the windows as it would a real train.  Surely they didn’t make the film on an actual train?  It’s so realistic I can’t be certain.

The acting is essential in selling the complex ideas.  Jake Gyllenhaal was great as the tormented and confused, but eventually dedicated Colter.  I found the character occasionally veered into “typical arrogant male protagonist” territory, but when contrasted with his scenes of humility and sobriety proved to be a well-balanced character.  Likewise, Christina by Michelle Monaghan was never written to be a deep character, considering we mostly only see the same 8 minutes of her life, but she does feel like a three-dimensional person.  Goodwin, played by Vera Framiga, is by far my favourite character.  She is written and acted as first as an unthinking member of the military who obeys orders without question, but creates a convincing and moving bond with Colter – remarkable considering she’s only seeing words on a screen – and, against her orders, lets him die as he wished.  I also enjoyed Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Rutledge.

If I had to pick a flaw in the film, which is difficult, I would say that the source code idea could have been taken further.  I was left wanting more – while definitely a sign of a good film, also means it must have been even partially unsatisfying.  Speaking about the film with a friend, his view was that the idea was too big for one film and I completely agree.  I read something about a planned television series on the source code concept… ?  That would be a great premise!  There’s so much they could do.

In conclusion, Source Code is a masterpiece.  It perhaps isn’t the most memorable film but it’s an example of science fiction as its best.  It takes a concept and explores it, having great fun in the process.  I have heard good things about Duncan Jones’ so far only other film, Moon, and intend to watch that too.

Final rating: 9.5/10

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Iain Banks Dies at 59

I’ve just heard the very sad news that Iain Banks has died of cancer.  He announced that he had terminal cancer back in April – which prompted me to read one of his books, The Bridge – and said he was expected to have less than a year to live, but just two months is so incredibly tragic. He just missed the publication of his final book, The Quarry, which is due to be released in only a couple of weeks time.

I’ve been very late in becoming a fan of his work – and I really need to read more – but I can recognise that his contribution to literature and the political sphere have been immense.  He has around 30 published novels and has won many awards, including a Hugo Award and a British Science Fiction Award.  He has campaigned for political causes ranging from Scottish independence, Humanism, opposition to the Iraq War and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

He will be very missed by the multitude of fans and admirers he has developed over the last three decades.

The Matrix: Revolutions (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

I would by lying if I said that I approached this film with anticipation or optimism.  The third and final installment of The Matrix Trilogy, I expected Revolutions to be just as mind-numbingly bad as its predecessors.  The Matrix was a well made film with some solid concepts, but had very tedious and drawn-out fight sequences; Reloaded was just a mess – so I was not hopeful.  However, I am willing to concede that I was wrong in my predictions for Revolutions.  It’s a film very much in two halves.

The first half appeared to be continuing the pattern of the first two films.  It trudged on with the repetitive action and irritatingly vague riddles in the same vein as the others.  By the point they were sharing incomprehensible statements with ‘The Frenchman’ I was losing the will to watch; by Neo’s conversation with The Oracle (“you know why” ad infinitum) it was more the will to live.  The acting was wooden all round – Hugo Weaving excepted, of course, and one or two others – every sentence delivered in a monotone drone through expressionless eyes, or no eyes at all when they wear those infuriating sunglasses.  In the first half there is no sense of threat.  These machines are digging down, still, and the characters just wander about being dull.  Then, Neo decided to pilot a hovercraft to the surface.  Why?  Because he’s The One – don’t question The One.  The characters tell him he is being ridiculous, and with good reason, but irrational faith in The One wins out and he is allowed to go.  It just didn’t make sense to me.  The only explanation is that “Neo is The One and therefore knows what to do; The Oracle’s veiled riddles told him what he needed to know.”  That’s the sort of plot point which would work in a novel, where you are exposed to the character’s thoughts and ideas, but just falls flat in a film.  Finally, the first half just seems to lack any narrative structure – I remember thinking it felt like it was written by 10 different writers, none of whom had spoken to each other about where the story was going.

Yet… Something changes, half way into the film.  It’s roundabout where the battle for Zion begins – that 20 minute long or so, huge onslaught between the humans and the machines.  Finally, an action scene with actual consequence and interest!  It’s hard to assess why everything from this point on works so much better.  I did consider it might be that the action takes place outside of the Matrix, so there is a real threat, and real things at stake.  But it’s been established that people are in danger within the Matrix… I suppose the characters no longer act like overconfident martial arts trainees and they become more human, more relatable, when thrown into situations which stresses their physical limitations.  One criticism I had for the battle was that the geography of Zion hasn’t been well explained.  Where was this dome in relation to the civilians?  How much threat were they under?  But that’s not a major problem, for once.

The film continues to improve from this point onwards.  The machine city on the surface was well-realised – and then my favourite moment in the entire trilogy, when Neo and Trinity fly above the cloud layer and see the sun and sky for the first time in their lives.  “Beautiful,” is all Trinity can say.  It’s a wonderful touch.  Neo’s confrontation with the machine authority is really, really good, and I enjoyed the design of the machines; they’re so alien, so… organic yet metallic at the same time.  Even the final fight scene between Neo and Smith didn’t irk me for once, because it actually had reason, it actually had purpose, it had been built up to and developed.  And the writing!  It has completely turned around.  Take this speech, gloriously spoken by Weaving, as Neo looks close to defeat:

“Do you believe you’re fighting for something?  For more than your survival?  Can you tell me what it is?  Do you even know?  Is for freedom, or truth?  Perhaps peace?  Could it be for love?  Illusions, Mr Anderson.  Vagaries of perception.  Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose.  And all of them as artificial as The Matrix itself.  Although, only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love.”

Of course Smith would be a scientific materialist.  The philosophy finally works.  His role as a virus within the machine world is really clever, too.  I read an analysis of the trilogy in which it argues that Neo and Smith contrast, Neo being ‘The One’ [only just noticed that’s an anagram of his name] and Smith being ‘The Many’.  I didn’t pick up on that.  This is now, finally, come incredible writing, and confirms my belief that this story would be better told as a novel.  In fact, I think this is the main reason I have been ambivalent towards the trilogy.  The ideas are sound, the philosophy is fascinating – if often badly executed – but it’s too often ruined by the film trying to be a conventional blockbuster.  I’m not saying action films can’t have depth, or films focusing on philosophy can’t have action, but… far too often, here, one is sacrificed for the other, with the result that neither really feels satisfying.  Again, in a novel, that would be less of an issue.

I concede that The Wachowskis are masterful directors.  I knew this already from Cloud Atlas, and here it is confirmed.  The Battle for Zion is one of the best directed battle scenes I have ever watched, even if it did drag slightly.  I read a comment praising the final fight between Neo and Smith for its ‘effortless’ animation of water, and I have to agree.  The only thing which bugged me was the flashing which often occured; first during Neo’s fight with the Smith-possessed human, and secondly during the constant lightning flashes.  My terror of lightning aside, I found it really hard to watch and almost began to develop a headache.  Were they trying to induce epileptic fits?   But yeah, on the whole I was very impressed.

Overall, The Matrix: Revolutions – and, indeed, the entire trilogy – is highly varied.  First half: terrible; second half: actually pretty good.  I really enjoyed the bits which worked, and can almost forgive the bits which didn’t.  I’m a little worried that I have been too harsh – I think I’m finally seeing what everyone else sees in the films.  But I stand by all of the comments I’ve made.  These have been very interesting to review!

Final Rating: 6.5/10

The Matrix (Review)

Contains spoilers.

The Matrix (1999) is one of those cult films which enjoys massive popularity and is frequently parodied or referenced to the extent that even if, like me, you are slow on getting around to watching it, you will know the basic premise and concepts of the film.  The images I had in mind were of immersive, frantic worlds based on green numbers and revolutionary action sequences involving that ‘slow motion floaty-through-the-air thing. (My interest in film making is a bit amateur…)  Directed by the Wachowski Siblings, I had very high expectations.

The film starts off with an action sequence as Trinity, armed with seeming superpowers, escapes from mysterious authorities.  This establishes the action-orientated tone of the film which, for the time being, I enjoyed.  The narrative then cuts to Neo in an initially confusing sequence of events as he becomes embroiled in what appears to be various conspiracies.  I particularly enjoyed the scene where, on the phone to the elusive Morphius, Neo must escape from his high-rise office block only to submit himself to the authorities.  However these sequences are detriment to the idea that Neo’s life takes place within a virtual reality.  When the final reveal comes it lacks the impact it could have had if Neo’s life in the false reality had been sufficiently developed.  That said, the reveal alone was expertly handled, in a gloriously horrific scene where Neo wakes in a luminescent bath of fluids, his body punctured with metal tubes, suspended in a darkened cavern surveyed by superior technology.  I felt physically uncomfortable and terrified watching this, making it one of the most successful scenes of the film and quite possibly my favourite.

The central concept behind the film, that humanity and artificial intelligence went to war and humanity lost, becoming enslaved as a use for fuel for the machines, is fascinating and chilling.  It also bears striking similarities to a script I wrote three years ago, which is quite unnerving.  The concept is both ‘shown’ and ‘told’ to the viewer in a narrated sequence which works effectively.

It’s at this point, however, that the film declined.  The plot seemed to dissolve in favour of mindless action scenes.  It developed a bizarre obsession with Eastern martial arts as a means of fighting the AI forces policing the reality.  And guns.  Lots of guns.  Too many guns.  Although I liked the idea of ‘downloading’ these abilities to the characters, even if I’m not entirely convinced it made any sense.  Slipping in and out of the virtual reality and the action which ensued did create tension, although more could have been made of the concept.  It’s difficult to explain, but I felt the false world was not clearly defined.  Perhaps that’s intentional, but having seen similar ideas done (Doctor Who’s Silence in the Library and the film Inception, to name a couple) The Matrix’s world pales in terms of development.

After the convoluted and, ultimately, pointless Oracle, and the more effective betrayal from Cypher as he kills half of the resistance team in a genuinely shocking series of events, the film becomes, basically, a shoot-out.  The team leader, Morphius, has been kidnapped and Neo decided to launch a full-on assault of The Matrix to rescue him.  It’s clearly a suicide mission and, for that reason, nobody has ever tried anything like it before, which Neo somehow takes as proof he’ll be successful.  I know the action scenes are one of the main selling points of the film and I’ll concede that they are brilliantly executed – there’s just far too many of them!  My only memories of 20 minutes of the film consist of shooting, punching, escaping in a helicopter, more shooting, more punching, various action shots, running, shooting, etc. etc…

The climax of the film is a final showdown between Neo and Agent Smith, during which Neo is killed.  At this point, I was hooked once again.  Did they really have the bravery to kill off the protagonist, I wondered.  Was this the natural extension of the film’s bleakness? No.  Which is fine, if there’s been a good reason behind it.  Instead, due to some nonsensical prophecy from the Oracle, Neo is “the one” and can somehow defy death.  Okay.  The words deus ex machina spring to mind – readers of recent reviews will know this is a technique I absolutely loathe.  And a romantic subplot is thrown in from out of nowhere, just ’cause.

The film was very well directed, however, and it is from the direction that I can understand from where the film has derived such praise.  I abandoned my desire to pursue a film-making career a couple of years ago, so I couldn’t go into exactly why The Matrix was a revolutionary movie at the time, but I think the fact the effects still stand up well today, 14 years on, in this age of CGI mania, is a testament to the direction.  The Wachowskis do really well to create the bleak tone – is ‘grimy’ the right word?  Or ‘gritty’.  It’s not to my personal taste – along with the excess of guns and sunglasses, which have ruined many a film for me – but I can see it’s done with success.

The acting was, overall, pretty good.  Hugo Weaving’s excellent performance as Agent Smith is the only role which particularly stood out to me, and perhaps Jon Pantoliano as Cypher, but there were no lacklustre performances either.

The Matrix makes up the first film in a trilogy, so perhaps I shouldn’t judge it alone.  Yet, having watched a trailer for the second film, The Matrix: Reloaded, which involves more shooting, more punching, more running about and beating up poor Smith, I feel no desire to watch it.  And I generally feel compelled to finish any story I’ve begun.  I’ll certainly watch it if the opportunity is thrust upon me, but I feel no desire to seek it out myself.  Overall, although there is a lot enjoy in The Matrix and much to marvel at, I was, on the whole, disappointed.  Maybe my expectations were just too high.

Final Rating: 7/10

The Dionysus Machines

I’m alive!  The Prelims are over and have become a distant memory.  It wasn’t easy – I have had an extraordinarily horrific week from Hell, though that’s another blog post.  For now, here’s a short story I wrote for a local writer’s group, called the Dionysus Machines.  It’s a very early draft of a story which deserves to be 100 times longer, and therefore probably doesn’t make a great deal of sense yet, but if you find time to read it please let me know what you think!