I’ve been quiet the last week because I’ve not been at home. I went to Romania with some friends. We flew to Cluj, spent the weekend there, and then travelled onto Cugir, a small town in the mountains south of Cluj. Most of the nights were spent drinking Romanian beer and wine, and eating Romanian food. On one day, we walked up a mountain – about fifteen kilometres in total – and the weather chose that day to chuck it down. Otherwise, it was sunny and cool. The food was good, the people really nice, everything extremely cheap, and the language very easy to get by in. I’ll do a longer post on the week in a day or two, but thanks to everyone we met. I had a brilliant time.
Here it is, the traycased edition of Catastrophia, edited by Allen Ashley, published by PS Publishing, and containing my story, ‘In the Face of Disaster’, among stories by seventeen other authors. PS do lovely books, as you can plainly see. Everyone should have lots of them.
I may have just destroyed my credibility by borrowing the title for this post from The Carpenters, but it does seem to fit the topic perfectly. To be fair, the song was written and originally recorded by Klaatu… and you can’t get more science-fictional a band-name than that. But, onwards…
There’s an excellent article on the New Scientist website Why space is the impossible frontier, which makes clear quite how hostile an environment outer space is. Space travellers can expect to suffer from atrophy of the heart (one week in space is quivalent to six weeks bed-ridden), loss of muscle volumne (six months in space leads to a loss of 32 percent of leg muscle power), and bone loss (about 1 to 2 percent per month). About one in ten space travellers can expect to develop cancer.
There are other hazards: micrometeroid strikes, solar flares, the fact that humans can only survive in a manufactured environment… And, to make matters worse, getting out of a gravity well is expensive, which means those environments must be as light as possible. The walls of the Apollo LM were famously thin – an engineer dropped a pencil in one while it was still at the Grumman factory; the pencil went straight through the wall. The entire craft weighed only 30,000 lb. That’s about as much as three African elephants. And two of those elephants were left behind on the Moon.
Charlie Stross has written in the past (see here; as have I here) how this shows the inappropriatness of the pioneer mentality when applied to outer space. Space is a new frontier; but it bears no resemblance to the old New Frontier of the Wild West. At present, the only means we have of colonising it is with our imaginations.
And sometimes those imaginations run a little too free. A lot of science fiction is set in outer space, or on worlds which orbit other stars. Or, indeed, other types of celestial objects, both natural and artificial. In these stories, much of the difficulties associated with space travel are blithely ignored. Spaceships magically travel out of gravity wells. Spaceships magically provide interior gravity. Spaceship hulls magically protect occupants from all manner of spaceborne hazards. And, of course, spaceships magically travel unimaginable distances within days or weeks.
Yet look here. It seems Panspermia as a theory has a serious hole in it. While life in some form, such as hardy microbes, may be able to survive months or years in space, they’re not going to get very far in such timeframes. To travel between star systems could take millions of years. Not even a kevlar-coated microbe with an atomic pile for a nucleus is going to survive that journey. But its corpse might. And, providing radiation, etc, has not garbled too much of the information embedded in it, the microbe could be used as a template for life. So… zombie microbes. Zombie space travellers.
Some sf novels have suggested that only information – carefully safeguarded, of course – may be the only way to colonise the stars. The Orphans of Earth trilogy by Sean Williams and Shane Dix springs to mind. In it, AI constructs based on real people are sent to various stars with exoplanets, and they then use robot bodies on arrival. Then there’s William Barton’s Dark Sky Legion, in which the protagonist travels dead from star to star, and is resurrected at each destination.
These are ways of dealing with the distances. Because the distances are vast. Sf writers and readers often lose sight of that. Take, for example, the heliopause, the point where the solar wind is too weak to push against the stellar winds of others stars. It’s approximately 100 AU from the Sun. That’s nearly fifteen billion kilometres. Voyager 1 is not expected to reach the heliopause until 2015, and it’s been travelling at around 67,000 km/h since 1977. Interstellar distances are orders of magnitude greater. Intergalactic distances are simply mind-boggling. There is a wall-shaped structure of galaxies some 400 million light-years from Earth called the Sculptor Wall. It is 370 million light years long, 230 million light years wide and 45 million light years deep. Try and picture that. It can’t be done. It’s impossible to imagine how long it would take just to travel its length. Yes, space is big, as Douglas Adams famously wrote. Human beings cannot travel to other planetary systems – space is too big. It’s also lethal. Human beings cannot survive in it unaided. At least, living human beings cannot survive. Perhaps the only well-travelled human is a dead human.
But, however humanity makes it to the stars, imagination will lead the way, and I think there’s plenty of room in the noosphere for stories which explore such futures with a more-realistic bent. Not Mundane science fiction; just “less magical” science fiction. I can’t think of a single sf novel which does not trivialise that first difficult step out of a gravity well. Perhaps the rocket, the brute force approach, is the most effective means of throwing something into orbit. Perhaps weight will be the most important limiting factor in interplanetary or interstellar travel – assuming all journeys start and end at the bottoms of gravity wells, of course… Well, living in space is untenable over the long term.
Instead of fighting aliens, or other interstellar empires of humans, it’s a battle for survival. The only enemy is the universe. And it’s a common enemy. If there are aliens out there, then they too will be fighting the same war. Why can’t we have more science fiction that reflects this? As Sir Arthur Eddington, an astronomer, said, “Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine”. And yet sf writers seem content to refight historical wars in some sanitised and romanticised and safe imaginery place which is supposed to resemble the universe around us. They’re ignoring the unimaginable strangeness and the mind-boggling vastness of it all. They turned the Orion Arm into a shopping mall, and the Milky Way into Smallville. They’ve taken the wonder out of the real universe.
It’s time to put it back. Please.
Library Journal have posted a review here of Catastrophia, edited by Allen Ashley. My story, ‘In the Face of Disaster’, is one of four from the anthology mentioned in the review. Although the review only gives a short précis of each of the four stories, it says the anthology is “inventive though somewhat uneven in literary quality”.
It’s been a month since the last one, so here goes:
Interstellar Empire, John Brunner (1976), is a fix-up of three novellas from 1953, 1958 and 1965. They’re juvenilia and it shows. For a start, it’s “enslaved”, not “slavered”. Gah. And despite being set in a post-collapse galactic empire, everyone talks like comedy barbarians. Brunner admits in an included essay that the novellas were partly inspired by a desire to invent a workable swords & spaceships universe – ie, interstellar travel but each world possessing no more than Dark Ages tech (although a helicopter does make an appearance). The mention of mutants and telepathic powers, however, in no way explains the magic powers which feature in one of the novellas. Aldiss did it much better in Starswarm and Galaxies Like Grains of Sand.
Planet of the Apes, Pierre Boulle (1963), was terrible. The film is a great deal better. Although originally published in France in 1963, this book reads like it was written forty years earlier. And, annoyingly, the author (or perhaps the translator of the Penguin edition I read) refers to chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans throughout as “monkeys”. That’s in spite the book’s title. Gah. The story opens with a couple in a spaceship finding a message in a bottle floating in space – which is too dumb a concept to be taken seriously, as paper simply wouldn’t survive in space. The message is the story of Ulysse Mérou, who lands on an inhabitable planet in the Betelgeuse system and is captured by intelligent apes. He’s an unpleasant narrator, the swapping of humans for apes and vice versa is painfully obvious a conceit, and the details of the apes’ world don’t really add up. Avoid.
Alanya to Alanya (2005), Renegade (2006) and Tsunami (2007), L Timmel Duchamp, are the first three books of the Marq’ssan Cycle. I’m currently reading the fourth book, and I plan to write about all five once I’m done. Just like I planned to write about the five books of Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love Cycle – the piece on those is almost done, and should be going up here soon-ish. So far, however, the Marq’ssan Cycle is proving an excellent thought-provoking read, and I’d certainly recommend it.
The Collector, John Fowles (1963). Perhaps when reading an author’s oeuvre, you should start with their debut novel. I didn’t. The first novel I read by Fowles was A Maggot, and I thought it was excellent. When I later read The French Lieutenant’s Woman, I was even more impressed. The Collector can’t match either of those. Fowles’ maintenance of his two characters’ voices is good throughout The Collector, and the novel is cleverly-structured. But it all seems a bit, well, tame. The eponymous entomologist kidnaps Miranda, locks her in his cellar, and then treats her like an imprisoned princess. When you compare that to similar situations from television shows such as CSI, or even from the real world, it all seems a bit too comfortable and home counties. Disappointing.
The Girl At The Lion d’Or, Sebastian Faulks (1989), is Faulks’ second novel. The eponymous character is a young woman of mysterious background who takes a waitress job at the titular hotel in France during the early 1930s. She immediately falls in love with wealthy lawyer Charles Hartmann. The two have an affair, and she tells him her secret. This changes his view of her, and so he breaks off the relationship… The Girl At The Lion d’Or has a good sense of time and place – and the heroine’s secret is very much a product of the time – but the writing is a little too flowery in places. But then it is only Faulks’ second novel…
The Secret History Omnibus Volume 1, Jean-Pierre Pécau (2010), is a graphic novel. Back in the Stone Age, four youths were each gifted with a powerful magic rune – the shield, sword, chalice and lance. These four Archons were immortal, and have battled throughout human history for supremacy. When one’s plan backfired during the early years of the Holy Roman Empire, it created William of Lecce, an evil immortal, who has subsequently been responsible for all the wars and tribulations since. There’s a good idea at the heart of this graphic novel, and the historical periods are handled well. But a lot seems unexplained, and it’s easy to get confused. This first volume covers from the Stone Age to the First World War, with episodes set in Ancient Egypt, the reign of Frederick I, the Great Fire of London, and Napoleonic France. I’ll be picking up Volume 2 when that becomes available.
The Flying Saucer, Bernard Newman (1950), I read to review for Interzone.
Déjà Vu, dir. Tony Scott (2006), is one of those high-concept thrillers Hollywood likes to rip bleeding from the oeuvre of Philip K Dick. Except this one isn’t based on anything by PKD. A bomb explodes on a ferry in New Orleans, killing everyone aboard. Denzel Washington investigates, and is seconded to a super-secret taskforce which has access to… a time portal. They can see back in time, to the very moment of the explosion. There’s some guff about wormholes and Einstein-Rosen Bridges, but this is Hollywood so it’s not very plausible. It all ends up with Washington getting sent back in time to rescue a woman who might hold a clue to the bomber’s identity. Entertaining, but it’s best not to think about it too hard.
The Men Who Stare At Goats, dir. Grant Heslov (2009), surprised me. I was expecting some stupid gung-ho thriller related to the title, but it turned out to be a funny and slightly offbeat comedy. The book on which it was based is actually non-fiction. Yes, the US military really did train soldiers in telepathy and telekinesis. Not to mention lots of other weird hippy-type crap. Not that they were successful. At least, not in the real world. In this movie, it’s left open. George Clooney is good, Spacey plays a nasty piece of work convincingly, but Ewan McGregor seems a bit out of place. A fun film.
Lured, dir. Douglas Sirk (1947), is an early thriller by the master of melodrama. It’s set in London, but made in the US with a US cast. Which makes for an odd viewing experience as the accents are variable. Lucille Ball plays an American, however. She gets embroiled in the hunt for a serial killer when Scotland Yard ask her to act as bait. There are several Sirk touches in the film, but it’s not a patch on his later stuff. It’s too light-hearted to really pass as noir, and a bit too bizarre in places as well; and some of the faux Hitchcockian staging sits at odds with the more conventionally-filmed interior scenes. One for fans.
The Time Traveler’s Wife, dir. Robert Schwentke (2009), I watched because I’ll probably never get around to reading the book. And, to be honest, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Man stalks woman through time, right from when she was really young. It struck me as a bit unhealthy. Meh.
Sherlock Holmes, dir. Guy Ritchie (2009), entertained me more than I expected. I don’t have much time for Ritchie’s films, but a few people had told me Sherlock Holmes was actually quite good. And so it proved. Nothing to do with Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, though. Well, it was about a detective and his sidekick; and they happened to be named Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. But that’s about as far as it went. Entertaining, if supremely silly. It’s been a couple of weeks since I watched the film, and I find I can’t remember any of the plot. Which pretty much sums it up.
La Reine Margot, dir. Patrice Chéreau (1994). They were a nasty lot those French royals in the 16th century. We might piss and moan about our current government dumping on the population from a great height, but at least they haven’t manufactured a massacre just to keep themselves in power. That’s what the mother of King Charles IX did in France in 1572. Since he was Catholic, and she didn’t want the Protestants to gain the throne, she had a bunch of them killed, which in turn sparked off a wave of mob violence. As many as 30,000 might have died (estimates vary). The title character is the sister of King Charles IX, who is married off to Henri, King of Navarre (a separate kingdom in the Pyrenees), who is Protestant. This is allegedly to placate the French Protestants, but it doesn’t go very well. Henri is imprisoned, and forced to convert to Catholicism. He eventually escapes, with the help of his wife. But not before King Charles IX’s mother tries to poison him, but inadvertently poisons her son, the king. When he dies, his brother takes the throne. But then he dies too, and Henri ends up as King of France. So he got the last laugh, after all. You couldn’t make this sort of stuff up. If you put it in a fantasy novel, readers would say it was too implausible. This film adaptation is noted for its excellence, and it’s easy to see why. Although sixteenth century France seems a bit minimalist and flat, and there are lots of meaningful glances between members of the cast. And it’s a long film. But it’s definitely worth seeing.
Edge of Darkness (1985), is the original BBC television series, not the inferior Hollywood remake. I thought I’d seen this before, perhaps when it was originally broadcast. But apparently not. Bob Peck plays a Yorkshire policeman, whose activist daughter is shot by an assassin on his doorstep. It turns out it’s all to do with Northmoor, a nearby nuclear waste facility based in an old mine. Peck’s character was a bit odd, even kissing one suspect in order to get him to confess, and later trying a similar trick on the assassin. Also bonkers was Joe Don Baker’s CIA agent, who helps Peck to crack the case because it’s in the interest of the US to blow the lid on the secret British plutonium project and the sale of Northmoor to a US billionaire. I can see why the series has become a cult favourite – it’s not the straightforward thriller a summary of its plot might suggest. It’s a little odd, but compelling viewing nonetheless. And the ending is completely mad.
The Last Mimzy, dir. Robert Shaye (2007), is a genre film which seems to have slipped beneath a lot of people’s radars. It’s based on a short story by Lewis Padgett (AKA husband and wife Henry Kuttner and CL Moore). Basically, the future is in trouble, so they send kids’ toys back into the distant past in the hope of educating a child to send them what they need. A brother and sister, aged six and twelve, who live in Seattle in the present day find the toys. And they make the kids smarter. And also provide some good sfx. While this is a family film, I think it’s concept is a little too high for its target audience. It’s done well, but it tries too hard to get its central conceit across and comes close to losing its viewers in parts. Entertaining, but, well, perhaps the filmmakers shouldn’t have thought about it too hard.
So I managed to get hold of a copy of Bertrand Tavernier’s adaptation – La mort en direct, or Death in Full View, or Death Watch – of DG Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe. And I watched it last night.
The book was published in 1974 (I wrote about it here). The film was released six years later in 1980. It was directed by Bertrand Tavernier, and starred Romy Schneider, Harvey Keitel, Harry Dean Stanton, Max von Sydow, and Thérèse Liotard (and a young Robbie Coltrane). Although the movie’s director is French, and the cast is international, it was filmed in Glasgow in English.
I think Death Watch is the first film by Tavernier I’ve seen. I was, of course, more interested in how it was adapted from the novel than in it as a film per se, but even so some parts seemed curiously inept. The editing is especially noticeable, featuring abrupt cuts which badly impact the flow of scenes. The cast also appear to be improvising… but after a night on the town and so suffering from bad hangovers. Some of the dialogue is not so much banal as downright phatic. In one scene, television producer Vincent (Harry Dean Stanton) picks up Roddy (Harvey Keitel) in his limousine. After settling into the car, Roddy asks with a smirk, “Did your handkerchief die?” Vincent gives an embarrassed laugh, and fiddles with the handkerchief poking from the breast-pocket of his jacket. Dialogue in books, plays and films rarely approaches realism because so much real-life dialogue is wasted breath.
The film also shifts the story from the title character, Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schenider), onto Roddy, the man who has had his eyes replaced by television cameras. The novel presents Roddy’s narrative in first-person, and Katherine’s in third-person, but Katherine is very much the subject of the story. She has to be for the ending to work. Focusing the film on Roddy makes it unbalanced. It is through Roddy’s eyes that we explore Katherine’s character, which means we should be looking out through them (as we do in the book). We should not see Harvey Keitel’s gurning mug plastered across the screen… Not that I’ve ever understood how Keitel manages to appear in so many well-respected films. He can’t act.
The film follows the plot of the book reasonably closely, although several scenes have been left out. Katherine is told of her fatal illness by a doctor – her reaction to this, and her husband’s response, are both treated quickly. Which makes her decision to run away, and so avoid appearing as contracted on the eponymous television programme, seem somewhat abrupt. She visits the Depot, a street market, and buys a disguise. She escapes her minder from the television studio (Robbie Coltrane), and spends the night in a church dormitory. This is where Roddy befriends her, and perhaps is one of the few scenes in the film in which Keitel does a good job. Together they go on the run, eventually making their way to Katherine’s ex-husband Gerald (Max von Sydow).
Few films are better than their source texts. Death Watch is not one of them. It is only when von Sydow appears on screen that the film feels as serious as its subject matter demands. Nor has Katherine’s character been built up enough to fully explain the choice she makes which ends the film.
Having said that, Glasgow makes suitably grim backdrop – although I felt the book deserved to be set in a town filled with Brutalist architecture. Its world felt grey and slab-faced, which Glasgow certainly isn’t. A couple of scenes were staged cheaply, and it shows in the sparseness of the set-dressing and extras. The acting is mostly good, but von Sydow is, as usual, excellent, and Keitel is, as usual, terrible. I’m glad I watched the film, but it’s not a patch on the book.
It must be some sort of milestone in a writer’s career when something of theirs is reviewed in the national press for the first time. Today is that day for me. In the Guardian Reviews section, Eric Brown has reviewed the Catastrophia anthology edited by Allen Ashley, and in which I have a story. Eric mentions four stories from the anthology, one of which is mine, and writes: “…the more sober, literary examination of the breakdown of society when humanity suffers apperceptive prosopagnosia – face-blindness – in Ian Sales’s affecting ‘In the Face of Disaster'”. You can see the full review here.
I sometimes wonder if in the future they’ll look back at the 20th century as something of an aberration. During the 20th century, efforts were made, precipitated by two huge wars, to create just and fair societies for all – some using methods and ideologies more extreme than others. But the Soviet Experiment went down the pan, and most developed nations seem to be sliding down the slippery slope after it. We’re slowly returning to a world in which the privileged few callously exploit the masses in order to further enrich themselves and extend their power. In the old days, it was the royalty and nobility; now it’s the plutocrats and power-mongers.
Once they could use religion to control the great unwashed – and it still works in some places – but for many it no longer has the power in their lives it once possessed. So now they use the law. They’re putting in place legislation which undoes all those steps forward made in the past hundred years. And with the sort of bare-faced cheek only available to those for whom irony is an alien concept, they insist they’re doing it for our own good.
Which is not to say we’re not complicit. Popular culture celebrates the immoral profligacy of the rich, and heaps scorn on the poor. We admire the greed of the wealthy, when we should be angry at their squandering of resources, or their plundering of that which should belong to all of us. It’s all very well dreaming that any one of us could join their hallowed ranks – if, as they claim, we “work” hard enough – but we’re much more likely to find ourselves at the opposite end of the scale.
Science fiction and fantasy are as guilty as any other mode of entertainment. If sf can be characterised as ordinary people doing extraordinary things in extraordinary worlds, then we too often fail at the “ordinary people” part. No one is Paul Atreides; no one can be Paul Atreides. We can only escape our humdrum lives by being what we are not: empowered. And in sf and fantasy, those powers are extraordinary. They might be technological in origin, they might be magical. But it’s not a utopia unless we have them.
You could argue that there’s no drama in ordinary lives; or that the drama simply isn’t big enough or, well, dramatic enough. No one wants to read about serfs when they can read about princes, no one wants to read about a cook’s mate 3rd class when they can read about the admiral of the space fleet. But this is patently bollocks. True enough, a serf can’t change the world – not unless they’re suddenly handed magical powers – but there’s certainly room for adventure. But then fantasy is not about changing the world, it’s about maintaining the powers of the few. There’s nothing consolatory in being a serf, and nothing admirable in perpetuating their condition. But as long as they have it good in the royal castle, that’s all right then.
So, where are the fantasy genre’s Robespierres and Marats? Why must every peasant-hero be privileged at the start of the story? It’s not even as if they “work” hard for it. It’s a gift, it’s like winning the lottery. And all they do with their new-found power is… keep the privileged few in power. Among which they now number.
Sf may have a slightly better record, but there are far too many tropes in the genre’s lexicon which fail to address societies’ imbalances. Sf should not be justifying prejudices. Celebrating individualism just means you think you’re better than everyone else. And you’re not; no one is. So why are there no stories in which the Great Social Experiment of the 20th century took root? Why must we all imagine that in the future corporations will be more rapacious than they are now? Where are the stories in which there’s no need for one group of people to slaughter millions of others simply to impose their will, or co-opt their resources? Where are the stories in which corporations are carefully regulated so that they can’t “accidentally” bring the Earth, or the Galaxy, to the brink of disaster? The stories in which sacrifice is a personal choice, not an imposed one?
Yes, many authors have tried. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, for example. Iain Banks and his Culture, perhaps… Except the Culture is a post-scarcity society, and has not so much redressed any inequalities as rendered them moot. Which is not the same thing at all. There are other examples. But they’re still a minority.
It’s bad enough the history of the real world is a catalogue of actions by the privileged few extending and/or abusing their privileges. I seen no reason why we should perpetuate this in genre fiction.