It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


6 Comments

A prospect of space opera, part two

If you want a book to sell, you have to be pretty relentless in pushing it all the time, but I can’t say it’s something I enjoy doing. I’ve always believed you judge a person by their deeds, not their words. Except in this case, the deeds, er, are the words. Or something. So consider this blog post, a discussion of some aspects of the universe of my space opera, A Prospect of War, and space opera in general, as in the nature of a a discreet poke to remind you that HEY, I JUST HAD A SPACE OPERA PUBLISHED BY TICKETY BOO PRESS AND IT’S AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE ON KINDLE (a hardback edition will be launched in July).

Serfs up, dude
The interstellar empire in which A Prospect of War takes place is feudal. It’s not the only political system you might find in a space opera novel, although it’s a relatively common one. But when the speed of communication is limited to the speed of travel – and travel itself is slow and often uncertain – local government needs a high degree of autonomy. However, if the throne is going to maintain control, it needs to know those running things locally have its interests at heart, and what better remote rulers than a group of people tied to the throne by chains of privilege, self-interest and obligation. They owe their position to the throne, and they’re well-rewarded for enacting the throne’s wishes. And, of course, should one get out of line, there’s always the threat of the throne organising the others to gang up on them.

Having said all that, such a political structure only works if everyone has clearly defined roles and responsibilities. And that includes the people at the bottom. They’re going to be the most numerous, so they need to be the most tightly-controlled. Such as, not letting them travel. Pretty much like serfs back in the Middle Ages. The serfs would be the economic resources in a fief, and in return are protected, and to some degree succoured, by the noble who owns their bond. But you can’t just have serfs and nobles, since the latter have enough on their plate without also managing the serfs. So you need a freeman or franklin class between the two…

One point to bear in mind is that these social classes are real to the people in them. Serfs – or, as I called them in A Prospect of War, proles – can’t just go gallivanting off on adventures just because some interesting stranger passes through their village. A franklin – or yeoman – arguably might, but they have their own responsibilities and obligations. As for the nobility… Well, the genre has enough stories about over-privileged oafs trampling all over the rank and file in defence of another group of over-privileged oafs – oh wait, that’s what my space opera is about… Or is it?

Reeve_and_Serfs

But back to the government side of things… When it comes to an interstellar empire, there’s another factor to take into account: anyone who rules the space between planets automatically has the high ground. No world is safe from orbit. This is where the navy comes in. They don’t so much enforce the throne’s rule as rattle sabres menacingly from orbit. Needless to say, space is big. Really big. Vastly, hugely, mindboggingly big. To borrow a phrase. Things can get lost, really lost, in space. So I cheated. In A Prospect of War, interstellar travel takes place using a sort of hyperspace, an alternate dimension, called the toposphere. This means there’s effectively no actual space between planetary systems, it’s completely out of the equation. It’s as if the countryside between city-states didn’t exist – though a journey still takes a certain amount of time. This makes the concept of an imperial navy much more plausible.

The Imperial Navy in A Prospect of War is one of three institutions which effectively rule the empire, alongside the civil government and the regnal government. In Dune, Frank Herbert writes “In politics, the tripod is he most unstable of all structures”, but since I can’t find any other reference to that sentiment I suspect he just made it up. Certainly for my space opera universe, I decided a tripod was no more and no less unstable than any other form of government. Besides, the nature of an interstellar empire and the history of that empire naturally inclined to a three-way balance of power – the navy to safeguard the space between worlds, the nobility to rule the individual worlds, and the throne as the ultimate recipient of fealty. However, in my universe past events had seen enfranchisement develop among the nobility, leading to a legislative forum, an electorate, and also an administration to support it – the civil government. And this despite the fact the throne already had an administration in place to enact its will – the regnal government. So, there’s some duplication of government institutions – like the Imperial Exchequer (regnal) and the Imperial Treasury (civil). Some of the plot of the trilogy is driven by the politics between these two governments, just as much as it is by the conspiracy which intends to overthrow either, or both, of them.

What, no guns? At all?
One thing I knew people would notice about A Prospect of War is that it’s a space opera, set in space, with spaceships… but everyone has swords. Just swords. No guns. I liked the idea of swords as personal weapons, because they made violence intimate. And they also made handy signifiers of social class – because swords need skill to use, which means training, which means spending money. And the more money a person spends, the better their teacher, and so the better a swordfighter they become. Unlike a gun, a sword is not a democratic weapon. The empire of A Prospect of War is not a democracy.

koppen-treatise-1619

If people carry swords, what’s to prevent someone else from, well, just shooting them? We all know that scene in Raiders Of The Lost Ark (this one). My solution was to, er, pretend guns don’t exist. No projectile weapons. No gunpowder. Just never got invented. It requires a leap of faith, but I’ve been told it works. True, there are “directed-energy” plasma cannons, but they need lots of power, so a lack of handheld versions isn’t implausible. (It’s implied in the novels that the five space opera technologies, which includes directed-energy, are used without any real theoretical understanding – a consequence of them having been reverse-engineered from a derelict spaceship millennia before.) Besides, space opera blasters – guns of any description – aren’t very dramatic. Swordfights are much more exciting. Just as long they’re not those interminable Hollywood swashbuckles, of course.

But if swords are badges of social rank, then not everyone can have them. Especially not proles. Contrary to the belief of one particular nation state, an armed populace is not necessarily the best defence against… well, anything. And although the empire has an emperor and dukes and earls, etc, it’s not precisely a tyranny. So, no swords for proles. They only get to use knives and non-edged weapons. Even the soldiers. Well, except for the marines, who use boarding-axes, as much because they’re useful tools in boarding actions as because they’re lethal close-order weapons.

All this makes for interesting battles, a sort of Age of Reason-type mass combat but without the firearms. There’s hugely lethal artillery – the directed-energy cannons – and a much higher degree of mobility than was historically the case… but otherwise it’s pretty much two lines of soldiers charging forward and lamping each other with maces. Which also makes the violence in a battle very much more intimate than if guns existed. And making violence intimate makes it that much more dramatic. Especially when the reader is emotionally invested in the characters… As I would hope they are.


2 Comments

Moving pictures, #14

Yet more films, some of which are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (asterisked). And there’s another Sokurov in there too. I’ve kept the number mentioned in this post lower than usual, perhaps in the hope I’ll write something a bit more critically insightful than I usually do. Oh well.

mockingjayThe Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, Francis Lawrence (2014, USA). I seem to have missed this off an earlier Moving pictures post, so I thought I’d better include it here. I have not read the books – I don’t read YA as I am not a Young Adult, but I’m happy to watch the movie adaptations… even if, 99 times out of 100, I’ll not be impressed. And so it is with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1. Jennifer Lawrence is an excellent actress – see her in Winter’s Bone to see just how good (and it’s a bloody good film too) – but she seems wasted in this series. It’s all about, well, it’s all a bit obvious. I’ve been told that the book is different because Katniss is a reluctant figurehead for the resistance to Capitol (which throughout the film is shown as the capital of Panem, and that’s not what “capitol” means). Anyway, this comes to a head when Katniss is taken to District 13, which is fighting against Capitol and… it’s about as subtle as a mackerel in the face, not to mention weirdly-paced. While Lawrence stands out, as does Donald Sutherland’s broad-brush evil president, the rest of the cast tend to fade into the background, which is a surprise given the calibre of the talent. I’ll watch the final film of this “trilogy”, but I don’t hold a high opinion of them.

steamboatbillSteamboat Bill, Jr*, Charles Reisner (1928, USA). Buster Keaton’s last film with United Artists, before he moved to MGM and later lost creative control of his films. Keaton plays the college-educated son of a paddle-steamer owner and captain, whose ship is decrepit and losing business to a rival. And it turns out that Keaton is is planning to marry the daughter of said rival. Various hijinks ensue, but it’s the extended sequence where a cyclone hits the town that really shows comic genius. Keaton’s stories do tend to overuse his underdog status and, yes, he always comes out top in the end – with much comical slapstick along the way – but it’s hard to begrudge him the formulaic construction of his films as they are quite funny – and, in parts, really funny.

predestinationPredestination, Michael & Peter Spierig (2014, Australia). There are many science fiction works crying out to be adapted for the cinema, and while Robert Heinlein’s ‘All You Zombies’ might seem like a good example, it’s difficult to see how a decent feature-length film might be made of it. But the Spierigs had a go. And they actually made quite a good fist of it. The story is basically a piece of Heinlein fluff – he never understood its popularity, and complained about it frequently in his letters, as published in Grumbles from the Grave – involving a time traveller who turns out to be both his own mother and father. The film expands this by adding in some sort of apocalyptic terrorist, and an additional character (played by Ethan Hawke, see DVD cover) to whom the narrator of the original Heinlein story tells their story. I told a friend after seeing Predestination that it wasn’t as twisty-turny as Primer (a film I like) but more twisty-turny than Looper (a film I didn’t like). But yes, I did like this one.

sokurov_earlyAn Example of Intonation, Aleksandr Sokurov (1991, Russia). If memory serves me aright, I watched this after yet another rewatch of Whispering Pages. Which I think makes the Early Masterworks Blu-ray/DVD set (as pictured) the most re-watched DVD box set I own. An Example of Intonation is basically an interview with Boris Yeltsin – and it’s one of the few documentaries Sokurov has made in which he actually appears as himself on-camera. It opens with several minutes of static footage of a snow-covered woodland, while a choral piece plays over the top. It then cuts to two figures walking along a path in a residential estate. Their footstpes are loud on the snow and ice, but their voices are muffled (I would not be surprised to learn that the Russian version is subtitled during this part of the film). The two figures are Boris Yeltsin and Sokurov. The film is a surprisingly frank portrait of the former, and astonishingly personal. Yeltsin is no matinee idol, and though his face often fills the entire frame, it’s a face which humanises a man whom the West has chosen to depict as… if not a villain, certainly one of the architects of the USSR’s fall (and perversely, while the collapse of the USSR is seen as a good thing, those who brought it about from within are seen as having failed at… something – yet more Western political hypocrisy). After the interview, Sokurov joins the family for a meal. The documentary finishes with a dashboard cam recording a journey by a limousine and police escort. It is because of artistic decisions such as this that I think Sokurov is perhaps the greatest director currently making films.

anouslaliberteÀ nous la liberté*, René Clair (1931, France). There is something both Renoir-ish and early Hollywood about the plot of this film, and something very Tati about its implementation. A pair of convicts put together a plan to escape from prison, but one of them fails to make it. The one that does, however, while on the run steals bicycle… and is subsequently mistaken for the winner of the bike race. He uses the prize money and builds up a business selling, and then manufacturing, gramophones, and so becomes a rich industrialist. At which point, the other convict is released as he’s finished his sentence. He goes to work in the gramophone factory, learns the boss is his old mucker from inside, and the two pick up their friendship. But then gangsters learn of the industrialist’s past and demand money. There’s an extended comic sequence in which they try to rob the plant, with the help and hindrance of the two ex-cons… The film ends with the pair as tramps, penniless and on the run. I must admit I wasn’t particularly taken with this for the first twenty or thirty minutes, but as the film progressed it got a lot more interesting and entertaining. There are some good jokes about assembly lines, and an amusing running joke about the woman one of the convicts fancies. A good movie, worth seeing.

robinhoddThe Adventures of Robin Hood*, Michael Curtiz (1938, USA). I’m really not sure what to make of this. It was filmed in glorious Technicolor, and I mean glorious. It looked beautiful – and some of the outfits worn by the cast, I remember one in an orange and purple tunic with purple tights, for example… But the story was complete Hollywood flim-flam, and not even remotely historical. And I don’t just mean Friar Tuck apparently knowing how to fight with a sword (an edged weapon!). Or Will Scarlet managing to keep his eye-searingly red outfit clean while living in Sherwood Forest… Having said that, the films possesses bags of classic Hollywood charm, as does Errol Flynn. The dialogue was pure cheese, and the cast mostly pure ham. But for all its faults, it’s Technicolor and it looks fantastic. I was born in Sherwood Forest – well, I was born in the town which stands in what used to be the centre of Sherwood Forest (there’s even a plaque to commemorate it), so Robin Hood has been part of my world since I was old enough to understand my surroundings. While The Adventures of Robin Hood hits the main points of the legend as it’s commonly known, it’s probably better considered a piece of Hollywood history than Nottinghamshire history. I quite fancy a copy myself – I’ll have to see if I can find one going cheap on eBay…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 594


1 Comment

Reading diary, #7

Another catch-up on what I’ve been reading of late, before this blog turns entirely into a film blog or promotional posts for All That Outer Space Allows or A Prospect of War (damn, I went and mentioned them, damn). Er, anyway, I do still read books and here are some of them.

realspacecowboysThe Real Space Cowboys, Ed Buckbee, with Wally Schirra (2005). I picked up a signed copy of this a few years ago, but never got around to reading it. It’s pretty much a hagiography of the Mercury Seven, based chiefly on conversations and interviews with them in years prior to publication (many of them had died before this book was published – Grissom in 1967, Slayton in 1993, Shepard in 1998 and Cooper in 2004). Nonetheless, it’s well-presented – which Apogee Books are generally good at, even if sometimes their editing leaves a little to be desired – and makes for an interesting read. Buckbee started out in NASA public affairs, before becoming director of the US Space & Rocket Center and then US Space Camp. He knew all the astronauts personally, and much of the book is presented as a conversation among the Mercury 7. Not a bad read.

StainedStained-Glass World, Ken Bulmer (1969). Bulmer was a prolific sf author with, according to Wikipedia, over 160 novels published under his own name and assorted pseudonyms. The reason for that huge output is because Bulmer was a complete hack. As is evidenced in Stained-Glass World. It’s a bit of a tired set-up, workers living in a lawless urban wasteland a century or more after society has collapsed, the rich living it up in their glass towers and enjoying a life of drugs and debauchery, and somewhere in the background is a police state but there’s little in the book to support it, or indeed the entire world as presented. The plot is thin at best, and somewhat confused – there’s a group of “Uppers” down among the workers, hunting for “Joy Juice”, which is apparently extracted from workers under the influence of another drug. None of this makes sense. There’s a lot of violence, a lot of description of urban decay and ruins, and some especially dumb future slang (a Bulmer speciality, I suspect). Avoid.

the_leopardgThe Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958). I saw the Visconti film adaptation of this back in October 2013, and liked it enough to think it worth reading the novel on which it was based. Which is, according to Wikipedia, “considered one of the most important novels in modern Italian literature”. The story takes place in the 1860s on Sicily, during the unification of Italy. It’s about the Salina family, particularly the head of the family, Prince Fabrizio, who represents the old order, and his nephew and putative heir, Prince Tancredi, who first joins Garibaldi’s Redshirts and then the army of the king of Sardinia (who goes onto become king of Italy). While the family is holidaying in their palace at Donnafugata, Tancredi meets Angelica, daughter of the local mayor (a successful and corrupt local landowner), and marries her. When Fabrizio is asked to join the new kingdom’s senate, he refuses and recommends the mayor, as he considers him more in tune with the coming times. There’s a Lawrentian atmosphere to much of The Leopard – especially when Prince Fabrizio goes hunting while at Donnafugata – but it’s also a much more political novel than anything Lawrence wrote. Now I want to watch the film again.

darkoribtDark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015). According to an accompanying press release, David Hartwell of Tor approached Gilman and “asked her to write a science fiction novel based on [my] enthusiasm for her short fiction”. Which does make you wonder why Gilman’s excellent fantasy duology, Isles of the Forsaken and Ison of the Isles, were published by ChiZine. Still, self-serving promotional press release aside, Dark Orbit is a short-ish sf novel set in Gilman’s Twenty Planets – as are some of her novellas, such as ‘Arkfall’ and ‘The Ice Owl’ – and I read it to review for Interzone. On the whole, I liked it, and it did some interesting and clever things… but I didn’t think it quite as successful as the aforementioned fantasy novels.

Prisoner of Conscience, Susan R Matthews (1998). This is the second book of Matthews’s Jursidiction series, and while it didn’t read as well this time around as I remembered, it’s still part of a superior sf series. I used to buy Matthews’s books as soon as they were published. It’s a shame her career seems to have gone down the toilet. I reviewed the book on SF Mistressworks here.

stalinsgoldStalin’s Gold, Barrie Penrose (1982). In 1942, HMS Edinburgh sank in the Barents Sea after being attacked by German warships. She was part of a convoy which had delivered munitions to Murmansk for the Russians, and was carrying back five tons of gold bullion in payment. For fifty years, the wreck – and the gold – sat in 800 feet of Arctic water, too deep for anyone to salvage. But, by the late 1970s, thanks to North Sea oil, the technology existed to recover the bullion. This is the book of the successful expedition to retrieve it. A Keighley-based salvor put together a consortium with sufficient cash and resources to get the contract from the Ministry of Defence to recover the gold. What distinguished his proposal from others was that he planned to use saturation divers, rather than explosives and submersibles. Given that the MoD had designated the wreck of the HMS Edinburgh a war grave, it gave him the advantage (as did a mole he had in the ministry). An Aberdeen-based diving company, Wharton-Williams, provided the divers and equipment, a German shipping company, OSA, provided the ship, and Decca Racal provided the navigation and sensing gear. The consortium would get to keep 45% of the gold, the British govenment would take 37% and the Soviet government 13% (the Russians also had a pair of observers onboard). Penrose spends a third of the book describing the convoy and ensuing battle during which HMS Edinburgh sank. The remainder of the book focuses more on the Yorkshireman, Jessop, and is light on the technical aspects of the salvage. The writing is also pretty poor. There is, in fact, a British television documentary on the whole thing, “Gold from the Deep”, and some of the quotes Penrose uses seem to have been lifted straight from it (the documentary is available on Youtube here – a poor quality transfer, though).

islanddrmoreauThe Island Of Dr Moreau, HG Wells (1896). Although Wells wrote over fifty novels, most people likely only know him for four – The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and this one, The Island Of Dr Moreau. The edition I read was, as pictured, the SF Masterwork hardback – and it took me less than half a page to spot the introduction was by Adam Roberts. Anyway, the story is relatively straightforward – the narrator’s ship collides with a derelict (until the twentieth century, derelicts were surprisingly common, with several hundred floating around the world’s oceans and seas). The narrator is the only survivor and is picked up by a ship delivering animals to an unnamed island. Also aboard this ship is a man called Montgomery, who lives on the island as assistant to a scientist with a shady past, Moreau. The ship dumps the narrator, Prendrick, on the island with Montgomery, and so Prendrick learns of Moreau’s experiments on animals, making them into “Beast Men”. It’s all a bit handwavey – there’s no explanation of how the Beast Men are made intelligent enough to speak or overcome their animal natures. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong – coincidentally while Prendrick is there, and coincidentally, he’s the only survivor. To be honest, I thought Wells laid it all on a bit thick. Prendrick’s outrage and horror crops up on almost every page, and the Beast Men don’t feel especially nuanced. Not Wells’ best, although the central premise is certainly memorable.

val9Châtelet Station, Destination Cassiopeia, Jean-Claude Mezières & Pierre Christin (1980). This is book eight in the long-running Valerian and Laureline (Valèrian, Agent Spatio-Temporel) series. It is also a pretty smart piece of work… which is more than you can say for most science fiction comics. Valerian is in 1980s Paris investigating some strange manifestations, while Laureline is in the Cassiopeia constellation looking into the possible source of the phenomena. The two communicate telepathically, and share their findings… but this is the first of a two-parter so what they find doesn’t really help explain what’s happening. However, where Châtelet Station, Destination Cassiopeia is particularly good is in the noir-ish feel to Valerian’s investigation in Paris. It’s especially effective when contrasted with Laureline’s adventures on alien worlds. It’s hard to believe this is thirty-five years old. I can’t think of a UK or US sf comic from the same period of comparable quality – not even 2000AD back then was as good as this.

septimusThe Septimus Wave, Jean Dufaux, Antoine Aubin & Étienne Schréder (2013). And this is the twentieth book in the also long-running Blake and Mortimer series. Although linked with Hergé’s Tintin – the first Blake and Mortimer story appeared in the Tintin Magazine, and the comic uses a similar ligne claire style – series creator Edgar P Jacobs chose not to prevent its continuation after his death. He died in 1987, and only actually wrote and drew half a dozen of the Blake and Mortimer books. The series was restarted in the 1990s and has been going strong ever since. The Septimus Wave is a sequel to an earlier Jacobs title, The Yellow “M”, in which evil scientist Septimus brainwashes series villain Colonel Olrik into committing a series of crimes. But Septimus is now dead, and Mortimer is experimenting with Septimus’s equipment – except he’s not the only one. And there’s something else riding piggyback on Septimus’s “Mega Wave” generated by Mortimer and the others. Apparently, some of the post-Jacobs entries in the series have upset fans by being a bit too clever or something, and while The Septimus Wave is by no means the best of the new Blake and Mortimers I do like the fact they’re a bit more sophisticated than Jacobs’ own stories.

hewhoHe Who Shapes / The Infinity Box, Roger Zelazny / Kate Wilhelm (1965/1971). The Zelazny won the Nebula for best novella, and I’d like to say I’m mystified as to why – but this is a science fiction award from the mid-1960s, so perhaps complaints about quality are beside the point. And, well, it’s by Zelazny, who is allegedly one of the genre’s great prose stylists… But there’s fuck-all evidence of it in ‘He Who Shapes’, just a piece of sixties sexism tricked out with some handwavey conceit. Everyone smokes like chimneys and what little non-central-conceit extrapolation is weirdly limited – computer-driven cars! huge skyscrapers! suicide epidemic! Anyway, Render is a Shaper (spot the cunning pun there? My aching sides), which means he can therapeutically direct patient’s dreams undercarefully-controlled conditions. But then a woman blind from birth who is already qualified as a psychiatrist asks Render to help her become a Shaper. He initially refuses, but then agrees to use his talents to help her acclimatise herself to “sight” – or rather, what she would “see” in the dreams she would be directing should she become a Shaper. Nonsense. And Render starts to fancy her, and so finds himself trapped in one of her dreams. Rubbish. ‘The Infinity Box’ is even weirder, and seems to spend much of its length in search of a plot. A widow moves into a neighbours’ house while they’re on holiday, and the narrator finds himself drawn to her, so much so he begins to experiencing what she is experiencing, and even manages to briefly control her. It also turns out the woman is a photographer and sees the world very differently to everyone else – she can see the entire lifetime of everything she looks at. While nicely written, and Wilhelm handles the narrator’s relationship with his wife well, the two elements of the plot don’t actually fit together, and the implausibility of both badly affects the story’s credibility. There are two possibly good stories here but Wilhelm managed to produce a single confused one out of them.

projectsealabProject SEALAB, Terry Shannon & Charles Payzant (1966). A lucky find on eBay. At the time this was written and published, SEALAB III had yet to take place, so the book ends on an optimistic note… Which is unfortunate as SEALAB III was a disaster – while struggling to fix a leak in the habitat, which was on the ocean bottom 600 feet deep, prior to occupying it, one of the divers died, possibly as a result of sabotage. It was enough to stop the programme. And this despite SEALABs I and II being very successful (and Mercury 7 astronaut Scott Carpenter was involved with the second one). Project SEALAB is a somewhat simplistic run-through of the two habitats (well, it is a “junior” book), but it’s copiously illustrated with photographs, which is pretty cool. Incidentally, there are a pair of US Navy films on the two projects, and they’re available online – SEALAB I here and SEALAB II here.


3 Comments

The future we used to have, part 27

I’ve not done one of these for ages, so I thought it was about time for another one. More retro-future eye-candy for your delight and delectation…

air

Aeroflot_Tupolev_Tu-104B_at_Arlanda,_July_1972

Tupolev Tu-104 “Camel”

Tu-114

Tupolev Tu-114 Poccия “Cleat”

Aeroflot_Tupolev_Tu-124_at_Arlanda,_April_1966

Tupolev Tu-124 “Cookpot”

britannia

Bristol Britannia

sea

diving-1200x525-final

A saturation diver at work

ADS Working

An Atmospheric Diving Suit at work

conshelf2

A cutaway of Jacques Cousteau’s Conshelf 2 underwater habitat

alvin

DSV-2 Alvin on the ocean floor

land

Ford-Gyron-1961

Ford Gyron concept car

 

holden-hurricane-left-side-view

Holden Hurricane concept car

 

maz7904

MAZ 7904 giant Soviet transporter truck

 

arktos_craft

Arktos Craft amphibious all-terrain transport

 

space

apollo588673main_S75-23430_full

Three Apollo astronauts in their CM (ASTP, I think)

 

leonovnews-031815b-lg

Alexei Leonov on his space walk (Voskhod 2)

 

marsImage48

A 1984 Mars mission concept

 

past-dreams-of-mars-atmosphere_64757_600x450

A Mars lander concept

 


3 Comments

A prospect of space opera

I might have mentioned once or twice I have a new space opera out, A Prospect of War. And since books apparently don’t market or sell themselves – big publishers have whole departments to do that, or so I’ve been told – I felt I’d better wibble on about it a bit. A Prospect of War will be officially launched as a signed limited hardback at Edge-Lit in Derby in July, but if you pre-order now you get a free ebook edition. Or you can buy the ebook straightaway, if you’d sooner have in that format. (ETA: The publisher has moved the book to Kindle: UK and US.)

apow

So, a space opera. That’s like with an empire. In space. With an, er, emperor. But A Prospect of War is not your typical space opera. Despite taking place in an empire that occupies some ten thousand worlds, it’s all a bit low tech. I was going for a sort of Edwardian aesthetic when I wrote it, steel plates and polished wood, but these days I suspect it’ll just be read as steampunk-ish. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

The reason I designed such a universe was because I didn’t want it to feel dated, no matter when a person read it. I wanted it to be hermetic, with no references to anything recognisable in the real world, or that could have been extrapolated from “current” science or technology. So all the computers are mechanical, and even artificial lighting is generated using the piezoelectric effect. And then there are the five handwavey devices which have made this an interstellar empire – topologic drive (FTL), charger (anti-gravity), directed-energy cannon (big shooty plasma-beamy things), power toroid (cheap energy), and force-curtain (useful for making sure your air doesn’t escape in space). There’s a back-story explaining how a relatively low-tech planet-bound civilisation ended up with these, and one day I may write a novella about it.

Then there’s the narrative of A Prospect of War, which was partly modelled on that of an epic fantasy. Or at least, that was the original plan. There’d be a peasant hero, who’d find himself embroiled in an empire-wide plot bent on… hell, let’s go for the obvious one: a plot to take the throne from the emperor. Your basic consolatory fantasy story. Why not? Except… what makes the peasant hero the, er, hero? If he’s a nobody, what is it about him that results in him leading the fight to save the throne? There’s no magic in A Prospect of War – I mean, that would be like polluting space opera…

Okay, perhaps a suitably science-fictional “magic” power might be okay. Like prescience. It worked for Paul Atreides, after all. True, he was also the son of a powerful noble, but you know what I mean. However, I wanted something a bit more original, and I think I managed it. In fact, this later proved only one of many serendipitous choices I made while I was writing – you know, where you write something because it seems like a neat idea at the time, and then later on in the narrative you realise you’d inadvertently foreshadowed something really cool.

In most epic fantasies, the narrative follows the peasant hero, getting to know him (it’s pretty much always a “him”) first, then showing how he picks up the various members of his gang, which he subsequently uses to defend the noble emperor. Or something. I decided to mix this up a little – the peasant hero would be your typical ingenu but he’d also be pushed and pulled by a couple of conspiracies. Which meant introducing some additional points of view as quickly as possible. This may have been a mistake. The opening chapters of A Prospect of War bounce around among four main characters, rather than focusing on the peasant hero. This means the novel has a somewhat steep learning curve – a situation not helped by my decision to try and avoid big fat lumps of exposition (although, to some extent, exposition was unavoidable, but I hope I kept it to a reasonable level).

The narrative of A Prospect of War, if it were plotted out, would look a bit like a map of a railway network. Sort of. The separate “tracks” of the story meet and cross and bounce off each other as the novel progresses, before eventually meeting up for the transition to the second book. Sometimes they’re chasing a mystery, other times the direction is dictated by the answer to a mystery.

Just to make things a little more interesting, when I was designing the universe I decided that topologic travel would be measured in weeks, but time would have passed more slowly in the real universe – a “time-lag”. On a logarithmic scale. So one week in the toposphere (the sort of hyperspace used by the topologic drive) equals eight days in the real universe; two weeks equals thirty-two days. And so on. A word of advice: never do this. It made working out the internal chronology of A Prospect of War, and its sequels, a complete nightmare. Especially when you have different groups of characters gallivanting about space.

All this focus on plot and the shape of the narrative doesn’t mean I skimped on my cast. It was important to me the characters were as well-rounded as I could make them. The peasant hero, Casimir Ormuz, might be typical of the breed – although he’s no special snowflake (well, perhaps a little bit) – but I hung the rest of the narrative on another four characters. Who, er, all happen to be women. Ormuz is a member of the crew of a tramp data-freighter. The ship’s captain, Murily Plessant, represents one of the story’s factions. Then there’s the Admiral, who is secretly building up a force to defend the throne. Her lieutenant of intelligence, Rizbeka Rinharte, is instrumental in bringing Ormuz and the Admiral together. And finally there’s Sliva Finesz, an inspector investigating financial irregularities high up in the government, who gets dragged into the whole thing. None of these, by the way, are precisely good or bad; it doesn’t fall out into two neat little camps like that. And it gets especially mixed up in the second book, A Conflict of Orders.

The other element of the space opera I spent time developing was my empire’s history. I wanted that sense of deep history you get in the best science fiction. I didn’t quite go so far as putting together a family tree covering 1200 years of the empire’s ruling dynasty… Well, okay, I started one, but I never finished it. But I did write notes covering some six or seven thousand years of history, most of which would never actually appear in the books. I actually made a start on an encyclopaedia, which I thought might eventually make a companion volume…

Next time, I might write about feudalism… in spaaaace.


10 Comments

Wait, fantasies in space? How does that work?

It looks like this film challenge thing I’m doing with Shaun Duke is becoming a regular, er, thing. After he met my last challenge of five films which complement my Apollo Quartet – see here – he tasked me with coming up with a list of “5 science fiction films which are basically fantasies in space, but which are not Star Wars. Ugh. That are “in your opinion and by your own criteria, good movies“. I suspect this is not possible – in fact, I know it’s not – so I’m going to cheat a little and pick films that are either good within the confines of their genre, or enjoyable irrespective of their quality. Because you’re not going to get some cheesy space fantasy that stands up there with anything by Tarkovsky or Bergman or Haneke or Kaurismäki or Sokurov or… Well, you get the, er, picture.

As for “fantasies in space”… yes, well, if not Star Wars is part of the definition then it must mean dumb space operas. And I can think of many examples, but they are almost universally pretty bad. There are no doubt lots of Japanese anime examples, and some of them may even be very good, but I’m not that familiar with anime.

Anyway, after much scratching of head and rootling through my DVD collection, I came up with following five. A couple may be obvious, one or two may invoke cries of shocked disbelief, and for a few I had to take “space fantasy” to mean “complete science fiction bollocks”.

johncarterJohn Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012). The obvious choice, and one that will no doubt have a few of you choking on your doughnuts. I loved this film from the moment I saw it in IMAX 3D, and I’ve watched it several times since on DVD. The production design is gorgeous, the CGI is seamless (the Tharks actually look almost real!), and the script is polished, with a structure which is far more sophisticated than the material deserved. It’s a crying shame Disney decided to sink it because it could have been the start of a bloody good franchise. But instead we’re going to get endless shit superhero movies, a vast cinematic retconning of the Star Wars universe, and increasingly dumber Star Trek sequels. Yay for tentpole sci-fi blockbuster movies…

flashFlash Gordon, Mike Hodges (1980). There’s much that cringe-worthy in this film, from the Queen soundtrack (there, I said it) to the cheesy dialogue to half the cast clearly belonging in a much superior film to completely non-entity Sam Jones in the title role. Having said that, you won’t find more sci-fic pomp and silliness in any other movie. Von Sydow, Wyngarde and Dalton plainly belong in a much better film; Topol, Muti and Blessed seem to have found their level. Melody Anderson actually makes a good Dale Arden. It is, in fact, hard to fault Flash Gordon as a piece of cheesy sf camp, but it’s a mistake to consider it anything more than that (and unlike some people, I ask more of my movies and books than they be mere entertainment).

planete_sauavageLa planète sauvage, René Laloux (1973). No film list put together by myself would be complete without at least one non-Hollywood film. While this is not usually difficult to achieve, for “fantasies in space” it’s proven something of a hurdle. I mean, only the US makes cheesy space operas. But I believe La planète sauvage qualifies because, while it initially describes an alien world in which primitive humans exist only in the wild, it soon turns weird and philosophical and all sort of wishy-washy and bonkers. The animation and production design throughout is distinctive and strange – it’s by Roland Topor – but it suits the story. Laloux’s later animated films were a bit Métal Hurlant, but La planète sauvage displays a unique vision. Definitely worth getting hold of a copy.

duneDune, David Lynch (1985). Heresy! Dune as a “fantasy in space”? I mean, I’ve always considered Dune science fiction, in space or otherwise, and I see no good reason to change that since it meets my definition of the genre. But since I also consider Star Wars science fiction, I feel this makes Dune allowable under Shaun’s somewhat baggy definition. And yes, Dune is a good film, and only fails at being a great film because the director couldn’t match his vision. But there are clues there if you watch the “television version” (which includes around an additional 45 minutes). It’s not so much the additional story that’s on the screen, and it’s certainly not the horrible prologue with its awful artwork. But the extended scenes set in the Imperial Court display an overly mannered presentation that works at the lengths shown in the television version much better than it does in the theatrical release. Plus, of course, the production design is superb. In fact, I’ll even forgive Lynch the “weirding module” and the rain at the end because everything looks so much like Dune should look. I currently own five DVD editions of Dune, so it’s probably about time I got it on Blu-ray. But which is the best Blu-ray version…?

battleBattle Beyond the Stars, Jimmy T Murakami (1980). Space operas – sorry, “fantasies in space” – don’t come cheesier than this rip-off of Star Wars. But it does possess a certain charm all its own, whether it’s because its plot is a beat-by-beat copy of The Magnificent Seven, or that the hero’s spaceship looks like a pair of breasts, or Sybil Danning’s double entendres, or the fact George Peppard was clearly pissed throughout the film, or that the entire thing looks like a series of episodes from a bad sf television series. But as low budget space operas go, it’s an enjoyable example. And Richard Thomas actually displays some impressive acting chops. The fact the script is by John Sayles also helps.

There are a number of other films I could have chosen, but it would have been stretching a point beyond breaking to describe them as “good” – such as… The Humanoid, Aldo Lado (1979), in which Richard Kiel plays the title role in an Italian Star Wars rip-off with production design that’s a weird mashup of 1970s near-future science fiction, Star Wars and Flash Gordon… Or Starcrash, Luigi Cozzi (1978), which manages to make zero sense but does include the immortal line, “Imperial battleship, halt the flow of time!”… Or Barbarella, Roger Vadim (1968), which has not aged well despite being based on a French bande dessinée… Or even Andrzej’s Żuławski’s Na srebrnym globie (On the Silver Globe)… Or spaghetti sci-fi Star Pilot, Pietro Francisci (1966), which apparently inspired some elements of Star Trek…

ETA: After much thought, I’ve decided on Shaun’s challenge. Five non-English language films featuring space travel, not including Solaris. Oh, and no more than two of them from Japan.


1 Comment

Moving pictures, #13

I was looking at my film-watching records – yes, I have a spreadsheet of which films I’ve watched, and when – and I noticed in 2013 I watched on average around 16 DVDs a month. Last year, that almost doubled to 30 DVDs a month. This year, I expect it will be much higher. I have yet to figure out why…

darlingDarling, John Schlesinger (1965, UK). Julie Christie plays a model in Swinging Sixties London, with a nice but dim husband at home, who has various affairs before eventually marrying an Italian count who proves mostly uninterested in her once they’ve tied the knot. The parallels with Grace Kelly’s life are left there for the the viewer to spot. Dirk Bogarde plays Christie’s manager, and he also has an affair with her. Mostly, however, the film is an acid commentary on the more affluent sectors of London society – an expensive dinner to raise money for famine victims, for example; and, oh look, things like that still happen, it’s as if the notion is irony-free, although of course Darling deliberately plays on it. The film starts a little slow, but Christie is good in her role, and things start to pick up as the career of Christie’s character does. A hippie party in Paris is quite amusing, if a little broad in its humour. I stuck the film on my rental list on a whim, and it proved to be a good call.

demoisellesLes Demoiselles de Rochefort*, Jacques Demy (1967, France). Demy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is a much better-known, and better-regarded, film than this but, to be honest, I enjoyed this one much more. The title to refers to a pair of sisters, played by real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac, who are looking for love in the eponymous town. A fair comes to Rochefort, one of the exhibitors at which is led by George Chakiris and Grover Dale. When their female stars abscond, they recruit Deneuve and Dorléac. Meanwhile, the sisters’ mother runs a café in the town square and pines for a lost love… who has actually returned to the town after many years and is helping Dorléac with her music (and also promises to introduce her to a famous friend of his, played by Gene Kelly). And then there’s the sailor who’s about to be demobbed, who’s friends with the sisters and their mother. Unlike The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, the dialogue is not entirely sung – which may be one reason I much preferred this film – but they do break into song pretty much every five minutes. And then there are the big dance numbers. It’s a musical, but it doesn’t really feel like one. Which may be one reason for its charm. After watching this film, yes, I’d like to see more Demy. Again.

deepseaJames Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, John Bruno, Ray Quint & Andrew Wight (2014, USA). I had to order this from the US as it’s yet to be released in the UK. And on Blu-ray too – in fact, wanting this documentary is one of the reasons I purchased a multi-region Blu-ray player. Anyway, I’ve been fascinated with the bathyscaphe Trieste’s 1960 descent to Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the oceans, for several years. I wrote a story set in Challenger Deep, and it was published in Where Are We Going?, an anthology from Eibonvale Press; and I used the Trieste in the third book of my Apollo Quartet, Then Will The Great Wash Deep Above. No one else had visited Challenger Deep – 7.5 miles down, where the pressure is 7 tons per square inch – since 1960s… until 2012, when film director James Cameron did it in the specially-built submersible Deepsea Challenger. This is the film of that expedition. It also includes a re-enactment of the Trieste dive. It’s a polished, well-presented documentary, and I found it fascinating. There is, it must be said, very little to be seen on the ocean floor at Challenger Deep, but Cameron and his directors make a very watchable film out of it. If there’s one downside it’s that we’ll have to put up with an Avatar 2 so that Cameron has the money to make another documentary like this…

sokurovSave and Protect, Aleksander Sokurov (1989, Russia). This was a rewatch as I first watched Save and Protect shortly after getting The Alexander Sokurov Collection box set for Christmas. I remember it being very slow and somwhat impenetrable. I have now watched it again. More than once. It’s loosely based on the life of Madame Bovary (and no, I didn’t discover the following morning I’d gone and ordered a copy of the book), but only in as much as it presents the sexual freedom of the title character as the foremost aspect of her character. What makes Save and Protect interesting, however, is Sokurov’s deliberate flouting of the fact it’s a period drama. Some of the cast wear more modern clothing, a car even makes an appearance later. This breaking from the carefully-constructed historical world in which the story is set is neither intrusive, nor does it necessarily break the suspension of disbelief the medium relies upon. In fact, it’s very similar in effect to Haneke’s breaking of the fourth wall in Funny Games. The lead role in Save and Protect – ie, Emma, although never named as such – is played by French ethno-linguist Cécile Zervoudacki, who brings a remarkable earthiness to the part (Sokurov likes using non-professional actors, mostly to good effect). According to The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, “Save and Protect has never been intended as an enjoyable cinematic experience, except perhaps in the frame of masochistic self-infliction” (p 85), which I think is a bit harsh. The book does describe the film is a work of art, and perhaps it is in some respects Sokurov’s least successful movie; but to me this is only further evidence that what Sokurov is doing in cinema is both fascinating and hugely important.

spivetThe Young and Prodigious TS Spivet, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2013, France/Canada). Delicatessen remains one of my favourite films, and I’ve always rued Caro and Jeunet going their separate ways since neither has produced anything individually as good as the work they did together. Jeunet has been the more successful, of course, with a string of well-received movies, such as Amelie, A Very Long Engagement , Micmacs, and now The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet. Which is plainly a Jeunet film through and through. The title character is a young boy who’s a genius and an inventor. He lives on a farm in Montana, with an entomologist mother (played by Helena Bonham-Carter) and a taciturn cowboy father (a badly miscast Callum Keith Rennie). Young TS Spivet wins the Baird Prize, awarded by the Smithsonian Institute, for his design for a perpetual motion machine, but he had neglected to tell them his age. Nonetheless, he decides to attend the prize-giving ceremony in Washington. So he runs away from home and travels across the US and… Jeunet does whimsy with a master’s eye. But I do find it somewhat thin an ingredient on which to hang an entire movie. There’s only so much CGI-enhanced scenery you can take in, so much borderline slapstick, so many characters bent out of shape until they’re grotesques… Not a bad film for a Saturday night and a bottle of wine, but I’m glad it was a rental and not a purchase.

thiefofbagdadThe Thief of Bagdad*, Raoul Walsh (1924, USA). Douglas Fairbanks plays the title role in this Arabian Nights-style silent movie. By my calculation, he was forty when the movie was made, but he plays the title role like a teenager, with lots of gurning at the camera, throwing his arms wide, and standing with his hands on his hips, his waxed chest pushed out. It’s almost a parody of silent movie acting. And somewhat off-putting. Otherwise, the film is a classic of its time, with some clever special effects and a story which, although somewhat long, manages an enviable pace. The production design, however, is… odd. While the sets did sort of resemble an Arabic city of the Caliphate era, the various pieces of writing on the sets were gibberish, not Arabic letters at all. It seemed to me like a weird mistake to make – to go all that trouble to create a believable Arabian Nights setting, and then not bother using an actual real alphabet. Ah well.

jeuneJeune & Jolie, François Ozon (2013, France). I’m a fan of Ozon’s films, although I do find him a bit hit and miss. I loved Angel, I thought Under The Sand very good indeed, and his film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s unfilmed script, Water Drops On Burning Rocks, was close to inspired. There are a few duff movies in his oeuvre, but it’s a generally excellent body of work; and he’s certainly a director whose career I follow. So I had reasonably high expectations of Jeune & Jolie, but… what a cold film. A teenage girl conspires to lose her virginity while on a family holiday, and on their return to Paris becomes an call girl, having sex with older men for money. Marine Vacth (who was twenty-two at the time of filming) plays the lead character with a quite disturbing lack of affect. When one of her clients dies in flagrante delicto, she briefly panics, tries to give him CPR, then runs away. But the police track her down – which is how her parents come to learn of her activities. Despite all this, she seems mostly unconcerned at what happened, or indeed at being caught. Not a pleasant film, though clearly it wasn’t intended to be. In some respect, it felt a bit like something from Haneke, but missing his signature oblique eye.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 591

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,184 other followers