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People loved having time machines – but hated the government-imposed restrictions on what they could do at certain key events in history, and the Crucifixion was perhaps the most controversial. Yes, you could go there, but only in ghost mode.

‘Yeah the number of people who complain to me because they can’t save the Lord, or take His place, or who want to give Mary a hug or a biscuit. How do you stand it?’ Malaria has only recently started working at the shop.

‘Maintain a sense of humour, Malaria. It’s your best defence.’

Have you ever seen the 1960’s film version of The Time Machine? Here have a look at the trailer. I principally remember this film for its terrible attempt at showing the passage of time. The Time Machine is parked opposite a shop front window and as the Traveller goes forward in time, he notes how the fashions worn by the mannequins change with each year. It is such a cheesy way to show the abilities of a machine that can skip through history, but it perfectly illustrates the problem with time travel as a story device. As The Doctor has observed, time travel stories tend to result in ‘wibbly wobbly timey wimey…stuff’, the very non-linearity of the protagonist’s adventures leading to extreme headaches for the reader in plot progression.

K.A. Bedford’s principal character, Aloysius ‘Spider’ Webb shares these frustrations. He hates time machines. Unfortunately for him, time machine repair man is the only job available to him. Drummed out of the police force despite a promising career, due to making enemies of the wrong people, Spider was broke before meeting the very charismatic ‘Dickhead’ McMahon, who offered him a job as an engineer at his business. He makes enough money to get by, has some good staff working with him and receptionist Malaria makes a mean cup of coffee.

One afternoon during what seems to be a routine repair job, Spider and his assistant Charlie discover that the second-hand time machine they’ve been called out to have a look at is exhibiting very unusual power fluctuations. Almost as if it is present in current space-time and yet also elsewhere. When they return it to shop, they manage to contain it inside a miniature pocket universe before accidentally detonating it. Amid the destroyed shell of the original unit, they see another time machine, sitting in the very same hermetically sealed space. Inside Spider finds a dead body of a woman.

As a former cop, he finds himself compelled to investigate the mystery, but knows that anything involving time travel means trouble. After all that was how he lost his job with the police force in the first place. He has a decent job that pays enough that he can tolerate Dickhead’s weird rants about angels. His personal life is a mess. His wife Molly has insisted on a trial seperation and the officer in charge of the investigation into the mysterious dead body, Iris Stone, was a former lover of his. He just wants to keep his customers happy, enjoy a nice cup of coffee and leave time well enough alone.

Then his future self shows up one evening and starts babbling about him being framed for murder, conspiracies involving a group named Zeropoint and a civil war at the end of time itself. Seems no matter what Spider does, he can’t live the life he chooses.

According to this novel’s cover jacket, it was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award in 2009. I actually found a number of similarities to the master of bluecollar sf. Not only is the very fantastical notion of time travel itself reduced to a 9 – 5 job, Spider’s relationships also bear a strong resemblance to the complicated lovelives of protagonists in Dick’s fiction.

Sadly the book is just too long. Philip K. Dick would often introduce a scenario within a seemingly ordinary world, only to throw all sense and reason out the window within a hundred pages. Bedford has Spider meet different versions of himself from wildly divering timelines and get swept up into a chronal war spanning millenia. There’s simply too much going on.

I did like the offhand humour of the story though, the frequent references to cult shows like Twin Peaks and The Prisoner, as well as the hints that Africa is the industrial capital of the world in the future.

A mixed bag for me then, but it kept me entertained throughout, despite the frequent head-scratching.

He gestured to the fireplace, over which hung a large framed photograph of the billionaire Da Vinci Code author, signed personally to Jean-Noël. “Look at that chin – it is the chin of a genius.” He ran his finger down the cleft of his own and mourned its inadequacy. “Mind you, I thought Digital Fortress was a piece of shit.”

Way back in 2008, when folks asked me why I intended to move to Australia, I would mention an assortment of reasons, such as the good food, sturdy economy, availability of jobs – but also another factor which caused some consternation. Namely Australian television. I am not talking about Neighbours, or Home and Away, but panel shows such as Spicks and Specks, a very funny programme that’s half music trivia quiz, half mad-cap variety hour (half hour!).

It was the good humoured content that surprised me. I grew up with Irish sarcasm and cutting British wit. Satire is the currency of my home’s entertainment, with a fair dollop of black comedy and schadenfreude. Australia seemed to me to have embraced an entirely different comedic ethos, fair dinkum banter and harmless absurdism.

Which was how I first discovered Shaun Micallef. His delivery of lines, whether it be as a comedic player, or host of the show Talking About Your Generation, seems initially quite poised, until you realize he’s speaking utter nonsense. When I discovered he had written a novel, I had to investigate what genteel gonzoism he had served up this time.

So what is the book about? Well our omniscient narrator is attempting to tell us the story of Alexander Pruitt, murdered in 2005, only to be reborn in Cromwellite Britain in 1657. Which, through a series of plot contrivances involving time travel and the etymology of the word ‘twig’, it turns out is the period most suitable to him.

Of course as history itself is warped by the events described, our trusty narrator might not even get to finish the book we are reading, or sell the rights to Hollywood, with the maniacal Tom Cruise playing him in an eventual movie. So we have two races to the finish line here, Alexander Pruitt desperately seeking out the meaning of his existence, while torn between two periods in history (as well as a brief cameo in a third); and our narrator hoping to sell out as quickly as possible before his intellectual property is unwritten.

Throw in some Masonic conspiracies, a nice hefty dig or two at Dan Brown’s expense, badgers and Blade Runner, and we have ourselves a novel. Oh and just to top it off the secret identity of Jack the Ripper is also revealed.

If this book were to suffer the indignity of a high concept, I would describe it as P. G. Wodehouse meets Philip K. Dick. It is fitting that the head of Philip K. Dick has reappeared as an A.I. oracle. Perhaps someone should ask it what it thinks of Micallef’s novel. It is manic, absurdist fare, that doesn’t take itself seriously for even an iota of a second. Conspiracies are revealed to be vapid plots without rhyme, or reason. History itself is a mutable, simultaneous projection without purpose. And Tom Cruise is a very scary individual.

The narrator’s Hollywood adventure feels like a random digression, but by that point you have become used to the editorial spats asterisked at the bottom of pages, as well as parenthetical asides to the reader, assuring them that it will all make sense in the end. I laughed out loud when Cruise himself begins to interrogate the narrator as to his peculiar ‘omniscience’, over the proceedings of the plot. It’s a brilliant moment.

If I go any further I fear this review will collapse into a puddle of sycophantic loquaciousness. Needless to say, I quite liked it.

‘I’ve been thinking about our beautiful country! Who gave it to us? I’ve been thinking about how God the Almighty gave us this beautiful sprawling land as a reward for how wonderful we are. We’re big, we’re energetic, we’re generous, which is reflected in all our myths, which are so very populated with large high-energy folks who give away all they have! If we have a National Virtue, it is that we are generous, if we have a National Defect, it is that we are too generous! Is it our fault that these little jerks have such a small crappy land? I think not! God Almighty gave them that small crappy land for reasons of His own. It is not my place to start cross-examining God Almighty, asking why He gave them such a small crappy land, my place is to simply enjoy and protect the big bountiful land God Almighty gave us!’

I think Steve Aylett inoculated me. Like Burroughs, once you read him your brain changes by increments. This is why I always liked Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Actually Daniel Dennett gave it much better expression, describing memes as a host of larvae in your brain that grow and develop into new viral ideas. This astonishingly disgusting image nails the idea behind ‘infectious culture’.

Welcome to my long-winded digression! Aylett infected me and now I am ready for George Saunders’ own invocation of manically surreal humour.

My edition is actually features the title novella, as well as a collection of short stories gathered under the banner In Persuasion.

The initial story describes the rabid assent of the eponymous Phil, a tyrant in waiting whose hatred of the bookish and weak-limbed ‘Inner Hornerites’, leads him to form a border militia of ‘Outer Hornerites’, who enforce an ever shrinking border surrounding their neighbours, demanding more punitive taxes each day. While the number of patriots called to his cause do not outnumber the Inner Hornerites, they are strong and tall, having been raised in the wide open spaces of Outer Horner.

They are also not strictly speaking human. While never fully described the peoples of Inner and Outer Horner are mentioned to have vents, or exhaust shuts, or in the case of the senile President, several moustaches. Phil himself is given to loud, stentorious speeches about patriotism and values and the threat posed by the limp wristed Inner Hornerites, especially when his brain slides down a large rack affixed to his body. What manner of beast is this?

George Saunders is dealing with overt political satire here, but in a refreshingly pretension free, absurdist manner. The story feels like a depressed Terry Gilliam run amok on the Monty Python opening credits. There is anger expressed, but couched in deceptively manic and lurid imagery.

This is a style that Saunders continues to employ in the following short stories in this edition. my flamboyant grandson features an elderly grandfather just trying to give his grandson an entertaining evening on Broadway, but frustrated by run a gauntlet of invasive holographic advertising. I remember Steven Spielberg’s Philip K. Dick adaptation Minority Report featured a similar scene of Tom Cruise finding himself assaulted by images of products and brands. The difference being Spielberg’s depiction seemed almost excited at the prospect of such augmented reality tech. Saunders portrays it as an affliction.

jon also tackles the increasingly dominate role advertising culture plays in our lives, once again depicting a future society ruled by images of comfort and excess. Here two lovers question whether their lives as commercial role models as any future for them as a family, as a part of a system that has no interest in the young life they are hoping to create. brad carrigan, american goes even further again, where television shows feature live action participants, at the mercy of reality altering ‘programmers’.

Throughout the collection there can be found a weary absurdism, a low mocking tone that fails to disguise a growing sense of despair at the future waiting for us.

I recommend a crash course in Burroughs, or Aylett first, however. Make sure you take your memetic shots.

Something, something has got to happen soon, Milena thought. I need something new to do. I’m tired of the plays, I’m tired of the Child Gardens, I’m tired of being me. I’m tired of sitting bolt upright on the edge of my bed all night, alone. I need someone. I need a woman, and there isn’t going to be one. They’ve all been cured. The viruses cure them. Bad Grammar. I love you is Bad Grammer?

Some years ago I bought Geoff Ryman’s book Was, a unique take on BaumsThe Wizard of Oz , in a sale. I never got a chance to read it and eventually sold my copy, along with most of my possessions, the first time I moved to Australia. Now I feel like running to the largest book store I can find in Sydney and hunting it down. I have not been this excited by a writer since I first discovered Samuel R. Delany.

In a brisk introduction titled Advances in Medicine (A Culture of Viruses), Ryman establishes his vision of this future London and the principal character a Czech orphan named Milena Shibush. Cancer was cured via a contagious benevolent virus that rewrote DNA to allow the human body to photosynthesize sugar internally, preventing the triggering of tumour cells metastasizing due to genetic damage. The viruses continued to mutate, becoming intelligent and coding information into each new host, until a hive-mind developed called the Consensus, which directed and guided humanity. Culture and history became transferrable diseases, with newborn infants suddenly becoming infested with the collected works of Shakespeare, annals of past events and languages. Utterly transformed, the skin tone of the human race is now a universal russet purple. Also, the curing of cancer had an unexpected after-effect – no one lives beyond thirty-five.

Got all that? Good. Milena is not like the other children. Her parents are deceased. The virus payload never took as an infant, so she was forced to actually read as she was unable to keep up with the other children. At the age of ten children undergo a process called being ‘Read’, where all their experiences are distilled by Consensus in order to determine what their future professions should be. Milena has never been Read. When she finally received a payload of viruses that took it caused her to become so ill she was deemed unsuitable for the process. After she recovered, it seemed to her as if Consensus had forgotten to harvest her. She was placed as an actress in London. She is different, estranged from the other adolescents and children, more impulsive, imaginative, distrusting of the viruses and due to ‘Bad Grammar’ is attracted only to women.

Milena’s loneliness and lack of interest in the robotic performances of Shakespeare she has to take part in as part of her ‘career’ – every actor recites their lines and paces the stage exactly as Consensus tells them the original performers did, in a perfect recreation of the Elizabethan era – leave her feeling increasingly isolated, until one day she meets the love of her life. One day she hears a voice sing with a richness and understanding superior to any recording. The singer in question is a genetically engineered polar-woman named Rolfa, descended from humans who chose not to join Consensus, but become intelligent polar-bears instead. Unlike the socialist Utopia of the purple-skinned humans, the ‘G.E.’ polar bears mine for ore in the Antarctic and sell it for profit. They are the last capitalists. Rolfa, like Milena, is a freak who enjoys opera and poetry instead of business. Where the ‘squidgy’ girl is paranoid and reserved, the woman who looks like a bear is raucous and inspiring. Their love is not permitted by either Consensus or Rolfa’s Family, forcing them to make a tragic choice. Milena dedicates her short life to orchestrating her lover’s opera based on Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

I have not even scratched the surface of this amazing book. Ryman’s characters are fascinating creations – the dangerously deluded Thrawn McCartney, Cilla an actress colleague of Milena’s so good she cannot actually tell whether she is self-conscious or acting – contained within an elliptical and time-jumping plot. The intelligent viruses resemble Richard Dawkin’s theory of memes, which he wrote about in The Selfish Gene ten years before The Child Garden was published. This is an exhilarating mixture of science and culture, a novel set in the future that revolves around Dante’s epic poem.

Outstanding.

So tell me, comrade commissar, what does Marxism/Leninism say about headless mutants? It has bothered me for a long time. I want to be ideologically strong, and I’m drawing a blank on this one.

In one leap I jump from aristocratic London, to post-apocalyptic Moscow. I have very broad taste in books. This is certainly quite different. As the quote above attests though, Glukhovsky brings some welcome humour to this usually dour fare. The world has ended! Let’s joke about communists.

The last remnants of humanity huddle together in the Moscow subway system, the surface of the earth scorched by nuclear war. Many years have passed and the survivors have built communities around individual stations along the Metro line. At first they were confronted with radiation sickness, birth mutations in the next generation, plague. Then there were additional threats – starved rats attacking the communities at night, territorial conflicts over control of the line, diverging ideologies taking over each station until finally an uneasy peace was declared when people could no longer afford to fight and die. Then the dark ones came.

No one knows who or what they are, but they’re thought to have come from the surface, hunting the surviving humans underground. When the attacks on the northernmost station VDNKh suddenly increase, young Artyom is sent on a mission to warn the remaining communities of the danger should the dark ones break through. Along the way he meets different guides, experiences strange dreams and visions, and begins to wonder if some greater purpose is working through him. Could he be the chosen one who will save mankind?

Immediately I was reminded of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere while reading this book. But Glukhovsky offers a meatier treat. While it is exposition heavy, with the various characters Artyom meets offering their own take on the situation and giving clues as to what led to the destruction of the surface, the author loads these philosophical discussions with a degree of richness and verve. Of course he’s Russian!

For a horror novel, Metro 2033 is unusually metaphysical in its concerns. What would happen to man if the world ended? Is the human race capable of survival, of transformation into a new form of life? Each of Artyom’s guides mark a different stage in the argument. He meets the self-proclaimed last incarnation of Genghis Khan, who insists that the Metro is a prison for the souls of the dead, heaven and hell having been obliterated by nuclear war. An elderly academic whispers of a hidden University that preserves all the greatest annals of culture and history and that will restore to humanity what it has lost. He even encounters a revolutionary cell of dogged Che Guevarrists, who insist that the battle to achieve true socialism must still be fought.

Within the cramped confines of the Metro, humanity has turned in on itself and Artyom has to contend with Neo-Nazis, communists and cannibals, all staking their own claim to territory along the line. Mutants, Nazis and rats are all well and good, but there is something simple and terrifying in walking along a pitch-black tunnel, where every unexplained sound is a possible threat. Glukhovsky understands this and does not overdo the gore quotient, instead allowing the reader’s imagination to share in Artyom’s growing unease.

At times the pace of the novel slows to a crawl, which is a shame for all of Glukhovsky’s world-building is thrilling in itself and would have been sufficient had he thrown in a few more surprises. Instead towards the end familiar landmarks and destinations are rushed past, with the characters racing to catch up with the plot. Certain passages feel like padding and this is certainly quite a thick book. Nevertheless there is dry wit and even occasionally a surprising degree of poignancy here alongside the claustrophobic horror of mankind being herded into the darkness below the surface of the Earth. On two occasions characters mention how similar their dilemma is to that of the Morlocks in Welles’ The Time Machine.

This is a thoughtful and rewarding addition to the dystopian sub-genre of horror fiction. You can even buy a game based on the novel now for the X-Box/Windows. Just wait, there’ll be a film next.

Every time we killed a thousand Bugs at a cost of one M.I. it was a net victory for the Bugs. We were learning, expensively, just how efficient a total communism can be when used by a people actually adapted to it by evolution; the Bug commissars didn’t care anymore about expending soldiers than we cared about expending ammo. Perhaps we could have figured this out about the Bugs by noting the grief the Chinese Hegemony gave the Russo-Anglo-American Alliance; however the trouble with ‘lessons from history’, is that we usually read them best after falling flat on our chins.

Okay, a couple of notes. First off, yes, I snapped this book up because I’m a big fan of Paul Verhoeven’s film. If you haven’t seen it yet I would advise you to drop everything and check it out. It is one of the most darkly humorous sci-fi satires I have ever seen. Plus it has Neil Patrick Harris goose-stepping on screen in a mocked up SS uniform. Secondly, and maybe that last sentence gave you a hint, I’ve made myself a promise of not using the ‘f’ word in reviewing this book. Not that it isn’t…a word beginning with ‘f’ that rhymes with – ascist. Just that, in doing so, I immediately scupper the review.

I plan on doing that anyway, but I’m trying to establish ground rules here, c’mon! Be fair.

Anyway Heinlein’s novel begins with young Johnny Rico narrating to us a military ‘drop’ on an alien world inhabited by a race referred to as ‘Skinnies’. Equipped with large robotic suits of armour that allows soldiers to leapfrog over buildings, the humans bomb sites that will cause the mass amount of panic. At one point Rico throws an intelligent bomb into a crowded building that begins to audibly count itself down to destruction. He is one of Rasczak’s Roughnecks, a platoon that’s known for being mean and fast, dedicated fighters. Once their objective is achieved they pull out and we flashback to Rico’s first days in the army.

The majority of the book itself is occupied with the hero’s training and experiences in boot-camp. This was something of a surprise, but it eventually became clear to me what Heinlein is looking to achieve. Rico is inspired to join up by the example of his stern Moral Philosophy teacher Mr Dubois. Throughout the book Dubois is seen as more of a father-figure than Rico’s own businessman dad, who argues against his son joining up. Only enlisted men are offered the opportunity to become ‘citizens’, meaning only they can vote in elections, should they survive long enough to make it to the next ballot. When Rico signs up he becomes estranged from his father, who wanted him to go to Harvard and take over the family business. He only receives letters from his mother from then on, who tries to intercede between her husband and son. It is Dubois who actually reaches out to Rico, sending him a note to say how proud he is that a student of his volunteered to join the Mobile Infantry.

We are told that 2009 recruits signed up, including Rico. After relentless training, hard discipline, even naked survival treks through mountains – less than 200 grunts remain for graduation. Rico ships out and joins the fight against ‘the Bug’, an enemy race of giant arachnids that operate under a hive-mind and feel no mercy. By the time Rico graduates the human race is at war with the Bug, which has struck Earth and wiped out Buenos Aires. He soon learns that life is cheap and the Bug never quits. We follow his progress up the ranks during the conflict.

Verhoeven received many plaudits for his subversive take on Heinlein’s novel, but the author himself has written quite a work of subversion. In short this book is nothing less than an attack on contemporary liberal values, with the militarist state raised up as an utopia. The Bugs are equated to communists and Dubois dismisses Marxism with a pithy culinary analogy. Social workers and psychologists are blamed for teenage delinquency and ‘the Terror’ is cited as a pan-global 21st century epidemic of adolescent violence.

Basically this future society is a response to hoodies.

What’s more, we never really leave Dubois’ classroom. I expected action scenes, but most of the novel occurs in flashbacks. Rico continually reminisces about Dubois’ lessons on morality. And this is Heinlein’s philosophical outlook, in fictional form.

 

He passes it and I rapidly read what he’s looking at. Domestic duties: the people of the dark ages, when living together, apparently divided up work depending on gender. Males held paid vocations; females were expected to clean and maintain the household, buy and prepare food, buy clothing, clean the clothing, and operate domestic machinery while their male worked. ‘This is crap! ‘ I say.

Robin is a warrior-historian in a post-human civilisation. Our planet is a dimly remembered historical footnote referred to as ‘Urth’. All time is measured in seconds. Key periods of human history have been erased due to censorship wars and a disease known as Curious Yellow. Humans have evolved beyond physical mortality itself, replicating themselves with multiple back-up bodies, and even customizing their own alien forms.

Robin has just been downloaded into a new body and has been warned by his former self that his life is in danger. Yet he flirts with death by engaging in duels and refusing to ‘back-up’ into a new body. His lover, Kay, has four arms, suffers from body dismorphia and enjoys having very public sex with him.

Got all that? Okay, now forget it.

Robin is Reeve, a petite housewife trapped in a loveless marriage to the monosyllabic Sam. Her friends are insufferably happy with their home lives while she is slowly going mad from the boredom of staying in the house all day waiting for her husband to return. Every Sunday the couples in the neighbourhood flock to their local church and are lectured on morality by the unctuous priest, Fiore.

Reeve begins to suspect that everyone is plotting against her. She suffers memory lapses and nightmares in which she is a man dueling with assassins in narrow streets, or is an armoured warrior slaughtering innocent civilians during a civil war. Is she Reeve, or is she Robin? What is real?

With Glasshouse, Stross mixes satire, simultaneously riffing on Ira Levin‘s classic The Stepford Wives and Patrick McGoohan‘s cult television series The Prisoner, with cutting edge futurism. The opening section of the novel can seem like obtuse technobabble, but once the nature of this future society becomes clear the book is transformed into a fascinating outsider perspective on contemporary morality and gender roles.

The futuristic society resembles a contemporary online video game, with humans able to heal themselves of any injury instantly, or live out a personal fantasy. The recreation of 20th century life is to Reeve, and the others trapped within the glasshouse, a dark age fantasy with confusing gender role-play, religious fanaticism and physical frailty. In the glasshouse Reeve is the ultimate inversion of the overly confident male Robin. Having to rely on her husband Sam to provide for and support her is frustrating. She is trapped in a body she didn’t choose, and forced through a combination of peer pressure and constant surveillance to live a life that disgusts her.

Stross’ take on post-human technology is fascinating, with the outsider perspective on contemporary life at times chilling but other times humourous. Brave the technobabble and you’ll discover a biting satire where a church service begins to the tune of Brecht’s Mack the Knife and participants in the dark ages experiment are rewarded with points for bearing children. The plot twists and turns, Stross exploiting the possibilities with identity crises and rampant paranoia making for a dizzying, dense read. I almost felt bad submitting it for this challenge.

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