The election of Donald Trump in the United States has had a huge effect on global feelings about our future on this planet. The slight warm, fuzzy feeling that the Paris Climate Agreement gave people - which was an event big on holding hands but small on legally binding targets - has gone.
A good example of such gloom is an article in the Guardian newspaper this week from George Monbiot. George’s article is headed with a still from the film ‘The Road’, based on the brilliant but extremely depressing novel by Cormac McCarthy, which describes a post-collapse USA, freezing cold and inhabited by roving bands of violent cannibals. George makes it clear that the combination of Trump and his team, plus the far right surge in Europe, combined with climate change and the dwindling life in our over-worked soils, makes for a very grim future. He ends his article by saying:
“So the key question is not how we weather them [the problems listed so far] but how – if this is possible – we avert them. Can it be done? If so what would it take?” Read More...
I'd been looking forward to watching 'Arrival' for the last few months and, fortunately, it didn't disappoint. I do like thoughtful science fiction movies and although Hollywood can produce some absolute turkey sci-fi films, along with a steady stream of macho-xenophobic-US-centric tosh, they can also make some excellent offerings. Contact with Jodie Foster was excellent, so was Gravity (which was actually filmed mostly in London's Soho), along with the Stephen Soderberg remake of 'Solaris'. I even liked Matt Damon's 'The Martian', or at least until the schmaltz and woefully impossible orbiting times in the latter half of that movie tarnished the story.
Arrival revolves around Amy Adam's character, an academic linguist who studies language structures as well as knowing multitudes of languages fluently. Although the film is supposed to be about the aliens, it's really about her as a mother, (mild plot spoilers) overcoming a family tragedy. For anyone who blurts out 'but that's exactly the premise of Sandra Bullock's character in Gravity!' I can only say that it seems to currently be the view in Hollywood that the only type of woman who can reach out to the stars and be intelligent and resourceful has to have seriously suffered as a mum. Read More...
I spotted a little nugget of news this week that's reporting that the 1999 science fiction comedy film 'Galaxy Quest' may be made into a T.V. series some time soon. It got me thinking and I've come to a strange and surprising conclusion:
'Galaxy Quest' is the best-written science fiction movie ever made.
I know, it sounds barmy. 'Galaxy Quest' is a fun, tongue-in-cheek sci-fi romp that came and went in the annals of sci-fi moviedom. Why am I choosing it over '2001: A space odyssey'? Or 'Star Wars', or 'Battle beyond the stars'? (okay, maybe not 'battle beyond the stars') Or 'Solaris'? The list is long. The thing is, 'Solaris' and '2001' and 'Star Wars' are wonderful movies. 'Solaris' and '2001' have brilliant ideas. 'Star Wars' has brilliant acting, top-notch production values and cutting edge special effects that haven't actually been bettered in terms of immersive involvement. But I won't be swayed, 'Galaxy Quest' is the best-written science-fiction movie I've ever watched. Read More...
The second teaser trailer for the new Star Wars film has appeared and it's good! (I still have a hang up or two about the original film, but I love it all the same) Check out the wrecked Star Destroyer! Check out Harrison Ford! and Carrie Fisher's hand! (possibly) and Mark Hammil's mechanical replacement hand! (possibly) and a-stormtrooper-that's-not-a-cardboard-bad-guy! I'm not excited, I'm very excited…
What is Star Wars about? A lot of people would say it's about courage and action and ability and the Force, but maybe that's being a bit too idealistic. I think, in truth, it's about much more basic stuff. I think Star Wars is about cool technology and sex. On that level, its story is as follows:
Sexy woman's in danger. Robots tell young, frustrated man that sexy woman's in danger. Young man travels in cool machine to tell old bloke the news. Old bloke gives young man an impressive weapon and tells him to go for it. Both men then travel to a spaceport and meet an even cooler man who uses his weapon, then they all escape in a really cool spaceship. They reach a super-impressive space station and find the sexy woman. They fire their weapons, rescue the sexy woman, hug her repeatedly, then escape on their cool spaceship from the super-impressive space station. Afterwards, they chat about which of them fancies her.
But it's the finale of the film which is really, really about sex. This might be hard to spot at first glance. The attack on the Death Star by the Rebel Alliance X-Wings seems, on the face of it, to be about a bunch of fighters attacking a space station and destroying it, but in fact, it's a vast, detailed allegory about conception. Here's that climactic scene described in symbolic terms: Read More...
Yesterday evening, I watched the original Star Wars movie again. It's still brilliant. But this time when I watched it, something happened that had never happened before. I was watching the film and I suddenly thought:
‘What on Earth is an underwater monster doing in a trash compacter on a metal space station??’
I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of this before; I’ve seen the film probably fifty times. But what on Earth is it doing there? Not only that but that space station is pristine. Totally pristine! There aren't even any wastebaskets on it! Where did all that rubbish come from? Also, why is the trash compacter two-foot deep in water? How does that help compacting trash? Read More...
The New Scientist magazine's letters page this week includes some more discussions about SETI and alien contact. This topic was discussed a while back and I wrote in about it, but there's always something new to add. This week's discussion includes my response to an earlier letter on the subject of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligences:
In your letters page (21st Feb 2015) John Bailey concludes that since we haven’t been bombarded with self-replicating alien robots or seen huge heat signatures in space, there probably aren’t any advanced civilisations in our galaxy. He seems to think that advanced races will have a ‘more is better’ philosophy, but climate change is showing us that a ‘less is better’ philosophy is the only intelligent long-term strategy. If this is correct, then the more advanced a race is in the galaxy, the less visible they’ll be. It’s the quiet ones that are clever, not the shouters.
John Bailey's expectation that advanced alien civilisations will be huge, star-spanning confederations with big, powerful ships and zillions of self-replicating robots is, I think, because of how they're currently depicted in mainstream fiction. We pick whatever seems cutting-edge and exciting at the moment - nano-technology, robotics, ion-drives - and multiply them by a thousand or a thousand million and, voila, that's your advanced alien civilisation. A century-or-so ago, H.G.Wells came up with the idea of Cavorite, a substance that could negate gravity. Using this discovery, two Englishmen travelled to the moon. From a scientific point of view, Cavorite is just as believable as a warp drive or a hyperdrive but it's now seen as quaint, silly and unscientific. I'd bet that self-replicating robots will be seen as just as daft in a century's time. Read More...
In my last blog post, I talked about science fiction ideas and how they can come about. As a follow-on, here's a video on the same topic from PBS digital studios project called 'It's Okay to be Smart'. I found out about it from a recent Brainpickingsarticle:
The video is lots of fun and it does a good job of celebrating how many predictions such science-fiction authors as H.G.Wells, Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Douglas Adams got right about our modern world. As the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Nils Bohr once said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future." :-)
Good news! My short story ’18% happier’ has won a runners-up prize in the recent ‘Arc’ magazine short story competition. £200 should be wending its way to me soon but more importantly, it’s a great endorsement. For anyone interested in the science fiction genre, Arc magazine is a new digital quarterly magazine created by the people at NewScientist magazine, focussing on science fiction stories and non-fiction articles. You can download a copy of it to your computer/tablet/phone etc through the Zinio service.
Here’s the announcement of the competition results from Simon Ings, the editor:
Today we are delighted to announce the results of the first Arc/Tomorrow Project short story competition. While we are a quarterly we have virtually no room in Arc for writing that comes at us from odd angles. The competition is the one chance we have at the moment of developing new talent. So how did it go? Pretty impressive, I'd say: we received around a hundred proper stories (none of your "flash fiction" here), representing thousands of hours of effort and struggle (and, I hope, at least some fleeting pleasure).
Was choosing the shortlist difficult? No. The first rule of judging and reading fiction (and saying this puts the fear of God into new writers - but it's true) is that you can tell within seconds if a story is alive. It's something to do with the way the prose and the ideas lock together. It's a rhythm, a cadence, something you only pick up by constant practice - and it's unmistakable. If the competition hadn't gone well, we'd have been wading through passable stories for days. As it is, our shortlist is made up entirely of stories that sing.
And while we were reading, half a world away in San Francisco, the Tomorrow Project was building our new website. Together, Arc and the Tomorrow Project will be generating conversations around our winning fiction, giving writers an exciting, inspirational platform and valuable feedback on their work. All Arc's shortlisted stories are here.
I thought that was a very encouraging comment from Simon. Insightful criticism is probably the most important feedback - so a writer can improve their work - but I never say no to a whopping big compliment.
The story is available to read as a pdf from their website. You can also read it on my webpage.
I’ll let everyone know about any more related news when it comes out.
Just a quick note to say that the graphic novel has had to take a back seat (again) as I'm now working on some humorous science-fiction short stories in a similar vein to '18% happier'. That story has had a lot of good feedback (more on that soon) and so I feel I should go with the flow and write some more of that ilk. Hopefully, I'll come up with a dozen or so and put them together in a collection.
Until then, here's the emblem/logo I came up with for the collection: Read More...
Science fiction and fantasy novels; aren't they lame? Well, not necessarily, although the genre is often seen as the domain of nerds and fans of mediocre literature. In some cases that view's probably understandable. When a novel is a piece of escapism, when the story is purely designed to give the reader fun and thrills with little in the way of thoughtful insight, such literature can be seen as little more than pulp fiction. The problems for sci-fi don't end there. Many readers are reluctant to read any story that has lots of technical references and descriptions and are worried such content will make the novel incomprehensible, confusing or just plain boring. As a result, large sections of the reading public avoid sci-fi and fantasy like the plague with the more high-brow dismissing it as shallow and the rest dismissing it as nerdy tech-fetishistic junk or social-inadequacy-fuelled escapism.
But there are science fiction and fantasy books out there that defy such categorisations. They do this because their purpose is not escapism or a glorification of technology but a piercing and insightful analysis of the human condition and our place in the world. This, essentially is what all great literature is about. The stories that linger in our thoughts, that we treasure, are the ones that give us a moment in time where we look at ourselves with clear eyes; sometime with a heavy heart, sometimes with a spark of joy.
Here's a list of ten science fiction and fantasy novels that, I think, do just that. They are all still clearly science fiction and fantasy novels, containing technology and mythical characters respectively, but those genre elements are vehicles, tools that are used by the author to talk about subjects all great literature is concerned with; love, loss, identity, morality, fear and hope.
Sci-fi now are running a competition asking for people's recollections of their scariest movie. Here's my contribution (now on the sci-fi now site here):
It was The Thing.
That wasn’t the scariest part. The Thing was scary, very scary, but the scariest part was that it was my first experience of watching a scary movie with my mates. I say mates; looking back, I’d be hard pressed to think of a definite example in which any of them acted selflessly on my behalf. It never seemed to be like ‘Stand by Me’ in which the youngsters band together and face down fears and dangers because they love their friends. It was more like a prelude to The Road. They’re friendly and want your company but you realise that if they get hungry enough, it won’t be ‘you go! I’ll stay and fight them off!’, it’ll be ‘what’s the big deal? We only want your left leg.’