You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Sci Fi’ category.

There is a maxim about the universe which I always tell my students: That which is not explicitly forbidden is guaranteed to occur. Or, as Data said in the episode “Parallel’s,” referring to the laws of quantum mechanics, “All things which can occur, do occur.” This is the spirit with which I think one should approach the physics of Star Trek. We must consider the distinction not between what is practical and what is not, but between what is possible and what is not.

I used to think my inability to understand secondary school physics was due to my having to learn it in Gaelic for four years. Then I switched to an English language school and was quickly disabused of that notion. I just have no head for science.

Science fiction, now that I can understand, as the various technobabble and scientific theories introduced into the plot is only so much garnish on a narrative unbound by realism. An ad hoc explanation or two allows the readers to understand the story being told. Star Trek is that rare thing, a work of science fiction that can be enjoyed by both those more academically inclined (ie, not me) and those who simply enjoy a good story.

This is something Lawrence M. Krauss takes full advantage of with his book, a discussion of physics as applied to the fictional universe of Star Trek. As a professor of physics, Krauss is obviously excited to be able to pass on his insights into scientific theories without having to resort to ‘Idiot’s Guide To...’

Interestingly Krauss admits that it was the notion of a transport, that cornerstone of Trek, that initially piqued his interest in writing the book. In order to facilitate a stylistic choice – creator Gene Roddenberry apparently was forced to figure out a way of allowing his characters to visit alien worlds without landing the ship, as it resembled a fountain feature – the writers of the original show hit upon the notion of matter transportation. A special effect of swirly lights, having a continuity person on hand to make sure the actor hit the same mark when on a different set and the conundrum was solved. However, because Star Trek was such popular show with science geeks – and one which, lest we forget, pitched itself as an attainable future utopia for all of mankind – the show’s creators eventually felt that an explanation for transportation machines, replicators, warp drives etc. would have to be provided and would need to be, at least theoretically, explicable in real scientific terms. This is where Krauss comes in.

His assessments of the different levels of plausibility can make for amusing reading. One example of how, in his opinion, Star Trek managed to anticipate actual physics through its own creative efforts (no doubt dreamt up in a rush to meet a script deadline) is the concept of the black hole. Krauss points out that mere months before Archibald Wheeler first coined the term, Star Trek portrayed a very similar phenomenon, though in the series it was termed a ‘black star’.  Then there are examples of scientists “just for fun”, attempting to look into concepts pioneered by the show, such as when Miguel Alcubierre attempted to formulate a theory for warp travel.

Personally one aspect of Star Trek that always fascinated me was the concept of a holodeck. Krauss points out that the crew of the Starship Enterprise are unusually coy about how they use the facility to create any virtual environment they can imagine (oo look at this!). Like John Zerzan, whose Why I Hate Star Trek I recommend as an alternative discussion of the series, Krauss wonders if the crew were sexless drones, incapable of using the holodeck to fuel baser interests. Happily British show Red Dwarf had no such scruples.

Where I find myself becoming the traditional Star Trek geek, and thusly enraged to a nonsensical hysteria so much that I ignore the very worthy and informative project of The Physics of Star Trek, is Krauss’ repeated references to the character of William Riker as a ‘Lieutenant’. He was the Commander dammit! When Krauss himself becomes tellingly pedantic – such as sneering that Deanna Troy had no understanding of anti-matter containment – that only made my geek-rage worse. The ship runs on anti-matter, sure, but I wouldn’t know how to fix a car engine. Why should she know the in’s and out’s of how the ship runs?

Caveats aside this is ultimately a very entertaining discussion of physics.


I stared at the leaflet in my hands. CAN A MACHINE SAVE YOUR SOUL? it demanded of me rhetorically. The word ‘machine’ had been printed in script designed to resemble an archaic computer display. ‘Soul’ was in flowing stereographic letters that danced all over the page. I turned over for the answer.

NO!!!!!

Folks before I get started, several folks have let me know there was a problem with yesterday’s post. Apparently the image used at the top of the article did not display properly. Please refresh the page with ‘https:’, to view the post correctly. I’ll have to investigate why the site is not displaying images properly.

Today’s book felt quite familiar for the first half. I realized it was because Richard Morgan‘s brand of intelligent cyberpunk/dystopic futurism reminded me of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Even the main character, Takeshi Kovacs, is reminiscent of that other book’s protagonist, um, Hiro Protagonist (yes that is his name. Like Joyce’s Stephen Hero, but with ninja hacking skills).

Not only though does Kovacs have kick-ass fighting skills and the conditioning of a cold-blooded military assassin – he is functionally immortal. Which is a good thing too as in the opening pages of Altered Carbon he and partner Sarah are shot to death by a hit-squad.

Reborn in a new body, on an alien planet, Kovacs finds himself acclimatising rapidly. He is an Envoy, a specially engineered soldier, hardwired to be the most efficient killing machine possible. He can consciously control his emotions, how he feels pain, as well as an impressive rate of data retention. In effect he is an unstoppable killer with eidetic memory. Envoys were created to be expendable soldiers who learned from their experiences and could cope psychologically with repeatedly returning to life. Kovacs is relieved to find his new body shares many of the capabilities of his last form on the planet known as Harlan’s World.

Now though, he finds himself on Earth, that moribund birthplace of the expansionist human race. An incredibly wealthy ‘Meth’, which is short for Methuselah and denotes the social standing of a business aristocracy that can afford to have stored clones increasing their lifespan into hundreds of years, has hired Kovacs to solve a murder. His murder in fact, although the police are convinced that it is suicide. Kovacs quickly understands that he is not an employee, or a private contractor in this case. The ‘client’, Laurens Bancroft, effectively owns him. If Kovacs cannot unravel the mystery, the callous Meth can just fling his ‘stack’, the device that stores his personality, right back into storage.

Together with the help of wary cop Kristin Ortega and a sophisticated hotel A.I. named Hendrix who is addicted to guests, Kovacs is on the case. But he is a rogue factor that certain elements would prefer not to get too close to the reasons behind Bancroft’s ‘death’. His Envoy analytical prowess and fighting skills are the only things that give him an edge against assassins with multiple bodies, a duplicitous widow/wife and a criminal mastermind from his past.

Morgan fashions a narrative that is one part Neal Stephenson, one part Charles Stross and one part Raymond Chandler. In effect this is a detective mystery, complete with that favourite trope of mine – the investigator with a much damaged body, except that it is set a far flung future. There is even the requisite femme fatale, a love triangle, chase sequences through derelict streets – this book has it all.

Thankfully, for all its familiarity, Altered Carbon represents not only a well-told story, but an excellent debut from Morgan, who has since spun the guilt-wracked Kovacs into a series of novels. The vectoring of personalities courtesy of clones and a process known as ‘sleeving’, (as in to wear a sleeve) where the original persona of a body is replaced with another, is well sketched. The plot is focused mainly on the exploitation of the poor, with Kovacs blundering through brothels and illegal surgeries, where the bodies and minds of the helpless are stripped apart. The material is bleak, but leaved with Kovacs’ own gallows humour. There is even a fantastic scene with a character split into two bodies debates the progress of the story so far – although to reveal more would spoil the fun.

Thrilling science fiction with a gritty aftertaste.

A year ago I reviewed Alasdair Gray‘s Lanark on my former blog. Instead of insisting on the post-modern content of that novel, or for that manner the religious themes, with references to Gnosticism and the inherent conservatism of the church as an institution – I compared the book to a comic by Grant Morrison named Animal Man.

Perhaps some might find that offensive? Personally the medium of a story has no categorical importance – it’s the content that interests me and I have no problem with raising this piece of popculture up on the same critical pedestal as Lanark.

Of course, and some of you may have realized, there was a small problem in my making the comparison – I had not actually read Animal Man. The page illustrated above was my sole reference. So to amend that little hiccup, I’m reviewing the final collection of Morrison’s run on the title today.

Animal Man is a minor superhero named Buddy Baker, who has been operating for just under a year. He has a wife, Ellen, and two children, Maxine and Cliff. An accident involving an alien spaceship has granted him the ability to borrow traits from animals, hence his superhero moniker. Unlike most other superhumans, Buddy’s heroics are more politically sensitive, such as environmental activism, agitating against animal testing and fighting against Apartheid in South Africa.

However, Buddy’s family has been under surveillance from a mysterious figure, seemingly able to appear at will. Unable to protect his wife and children from the ‘weirdness’, in his life, the everyman superhero has also recently undergone unusual experiences, hinting at some outside force manipulating his life for the purpose of entertainment.

Then tragedy strikes. Ellen and the children are assassinated.  The killer, no supervillain but an ordinary gunman , was hired by a group of businessmen affected by Animal Man’s actions. Buddy hunts them down and avenges his family, but is left broken by the experience. Desperate to save his family, he travels back through time – but finds himself sucked into a conflict with a number of other heroes who have been erased from the timeline. He is just a character in a comic book, and it is the writer who is responsible for all his suffering.

“Who are you? Who did you say you were?”

“Me? I’m the evil mastermind behind the scenes. I’m the wicked puppeteer who pulls the strings and makes you dance. I’m your writer.”

The final encounter between Animal Man and ‘Grant Morrison’, is thankfully not just an example of po-mo nonsense. The culmination of year’s worth of dangling plot-threads, it allows the writer to wrap up the storyline with a flourish, while also addressing the central concern of the book. As a comic that did not shy away from political themes, Animal Man was principally about the defence of the helpless – lab animals, slaughtered dolpins, South Africans suffering oppression.

In a neat inversion, Morrison proposes that the superhumans of DC Comics are themselves helpless victims – of us and our changing tastes in entertainment. The creations that were enjoyed by readers in their childhood have become tarnished, grim and violent vigilantes. Their suffering is the stuff of modern entertainment. Their moral values are irrelevent. The Morrison that Animal Man encounters is unapologetic about this. He is after all only one writer among many, who vented his frustrations with the world through the medium of this comic book, but in the end he is as powerless to change the world as Buddy is.

Confronted with this seemingly uncaring demiurge, we really begin to sympathize with Buddy’s plight and care about the lives of these characters – who are only, lest we forget, commercial products. At one point one of these ‘erased’, creations exclaims: I don’t care what I am. I don’t care if I’m just a minor character in a bad story…I’m not going to let this happen. You hear me? I’ve still got my dignity!

There is even a page where Morrison conjures up some random foes for Buddy to fight in the background, while he addresses the reader and says his thanks to the editors and artistic team that worked on the book. He apologises for the preachy tone of the book – while at the same time making one final attempt to sway the audience to the themes addressed in Animal Man. For this cynical Morrison is just as much a fictional creation as Buddy, whose defeatism is rejected on the very last page.

Emotionally personal and intimate. A classic.

When I was a teenager looking for weird and interesting facts to talk about during lunch at school, Richard Metzger‘s Disinfo show fit the bill perfectly. At times seeming like a more media-literate, cyberpunk version of Fortean Times, it delivered a mixture of social commentary and conspiracy theory. It also introduced me to Grant Morrison‘s The Invisibles.

In fact, as far as I can recall, the more buoyant and fun US-set issues of The Invisibles were supposedly inspired by a meeting between Morrison and Metzger himself. The other writer I first discovered through the show was Douglas Rushkoff. Still active as a media commentator (just have a gander at this piece on the ‘demise of Facebook‘) Rushkoff is notable for his ability to recognize the potential in open source projects and online culture.

In fact with this book he proposes that the Bible, and the Torah that preceded it, was one of the earliest open source works in our culture. It just so happens that he has chosen the medium of comics to elucidate his theories.

Rushkoff chooses to draw parallels between the Biblical accounts of Abraham and Lot, and near-future events in a technocratic fascist America. Jake Stern’s father is heavily involved in a military project designed to implant chips in American citizens, ostensibly to track the locations of soldiers during wartime. The draft has been reintroduced and the US  is involved in at least six wars simultaneously. Jake has friends involved in an underground movement that believes the chips can be used to control people’s minds, create instant perfect soldiers. Caught between his father and his political sympathies for his friends, he tries not to get involved in the rising tensions between activists and the government.

Jake’s father is trapped in the same test of loyalty to his ‘God’, or his family as was Abraham, with his employer urging him to ‘sacrifice’, his son by implanting a chip in him. Jake is equated with Lot, attempting to save his friends from the disaster he knows is coming, even as his Biblical counterpoint was singled out following the search of Sodom for innocent souls.

Just as these stories repeat themselves throughout history, the same forces who were involved in the events described by the Bible, the agents of Yahweh and the pagan gods arrayed against Him (identified here as Astarte and Moloch) are present in Jake’s time. In fact, from their point of view, these events are all occuring simultaneously. The Jewish god Yahweh is involved in constant battles with His rivals for the souls of the ‘chosen people’. Jake and his underground pals are merely acting out yet another iteration of this conflict against a monolithic evil force.

Rushkoff takes full advantage of the comic-book medium to present his argument, using split-panels to draw out the comparisons between his two chosen narratives, as well recurring associations of select phrases and images. At one point he even appears in the book as a college lecturer explaining the concept behind the comic-book, arguing that our contemporary stories are achetypal echoes of ancient myths. As he says this, a slide depicting the reincarnated Egyptian superhero Hawkman is presented in a neat piece of visual shorthand.

While I admire the audacity of the concept, the material is overly familiar, having quite a few points of similarity to Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. In its favour though, Rushkoff’s take on the material is far less obscure. The Morrison comparison’s continue as Liam Sharp artwork resembles frequent collaborator Frank Quitely. However, I fear I am doing Testament a disservice by saying that, as Rushkoff’s intent is quite brilliant. Liberate the Biblical myths from the dry, neutered interpretations we have grown up with and forge them into an exciting conceptual thriller. Moloch and Astarte are personified as very literal forces of violence and sex, with Yahweh a god of revolutions, a liberator from these baser instincts.

This take on the meaning of the Bible proclaims it as stridently anti-authoritarian, the very opposite of Nietzsche‘s assessment of Christianity as a religion of slave-morality.

Testament excites in its scale of ambition and association of ideas. On that basis I would recommend it for those who like their comics to do something quite different.

 

She reaches out with a careful finger. The butterfly startles, then allows her to gather it in, to walk it into her cupped palm. It has come a long distance. It must be tired. As tired as she feels. It has travelled continents. Crossed high steppes and emerald jungles to land here, amongst hibiscus and paving stones, so that Kanya can now hold it in her hand and appreciate its beauty. Such a long way to travel.

Kanya makes a fist on its fluttering. Opens her hand and lets its dust drop to the tiles. WIng fragments and pulped body. A manufactured pollinator, wafted from some PurCal laboratory most likely.

Windups have no souls. But they are beautiful.

Five years ago I read Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies, an assessment of our society’s chances of surviving ‘Peak Oil’. Resource wars are no longer some grim prophecy of futurists – they are a increasingly likely outcome for first-world nations with a global reach. Speculative fiction can often play a role in navigating such grim portents. With this novel, the notion of a complete collapse of petroleum economies is taken as a given. What is proposed is a radical alternative that equally boxes in the described society of the future into yet more debilitating conflicts and regimes change.  

In the wake of devastating collapse of crops due to genetically engineered diseases, Thailand was one of the few countries left still standing. The young Queen in Bangkok rules over a much enlarged kingdom, with refugees fleeing religious persecution in China pouring over its borders and American company men attempting to curry favour with the regime by setting up new businesses in a country that has survived civil wars and plague. Anderson Lake is one such man, wandering the street markets of Bangkok examining the fruit on sale that speaks to hidden seed farms, secured away from prying eyes. As a farang he is barely tolerated; as a company man possibly connected to the same enclaves that accidentally released genetically engineered viruses years ago, it is a wonder he has not been killed.

His aide Hock Seng is a Chinese refugee who is juggling one too many schemes in order to survive. He tries to keep Lake happy, while also paying bribes to Thai officials, the white shirts, and skimming off the top for himself. He runs a factory for Lake that specialises in growing algae cultures that can be converted into energy. The machinery is prone to breaking down, there is a danger of rampant contamination and the city’s trade unions prevent him from keeping the workers in line. Still he plots and plans to escape Bangkok, even in the face of growing tensions.

Then there is Emiko, a windup, a genetically perfect humanoid, abandoned by her Japanese creators to the slums of Bangkok. Her life is conditioned by instinctual commands she cannot resist. She is programmed to serve, to seek out an authority figure. Unfortunately there are places in Bangkok that specialize in debasement for the purposes of entertaining farang businessmen and corrupt Thai officials. Her master Raleigh has her perform on stage, publically abused and violated sexually to drunken cheers. When she happens to overhear mention of a rogue genetic engineer hiding out in the city, she is introduced to a man who will gladly pay to hear more – Anderson Lake. He looks at her with a mixture of disgust and disinterest, but she thinks she can see a glimmer of pity in his eyes as well.

Finally there is the Tiger, Jaidee, the famously incorruptible white shirt on the hunt for conspirators within the houses of government itself. He trusts his partner Kanya with his life, but when he confiscates precious carg, he discovers who his true allies are.

There is so much going on in this book, so many overlapping plots, that at first it might appear quite dense. The Windup Girl, however, builds into an epic tragedy, a truly astonishing debut from Paolo Bacigalupi that fascinates in its description of neo-colonialism. At times it resembles an inversion of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner which showed audiences a vision of a future-America dominated by Chinese culture. Then there’s this article from io9 describing how Rian Johnson’s next sf film has received funding for depicting another Sino-futuristic setting.

I found the scenes of Emiko being raped horribly disturbing, but as a whole the book is undoubtedly an astonishing creation.

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.

Join me at The Momus Report

Vote For Me!

Share this blog

Bookmark and Share