It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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The megalodon in the room

A couple of nights ago, I watched The Meg, a big-budget Warner Bros attempt to cash in on the type of film normally made by The Asylum. In it, Jason Statham plays a submersible driver persuaded out of self-imposed retirement when the submersible containing his wife and two scientists is trapped at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Well, below the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Because the trench’s bottom is actually a thermocline, a layer of near-freezing hydrogen sulphide, and beneath it is a veritable deep sea paradise, cut off from the rest of the ocean for millions of years. Which is why it contains a megalodon, a giant shark, which went extinct 2.3 million years ago.

It’s the megalodon which trashed the submersible and, after the crew is rescued, the megalodon escapes into the Pacific Ocean. Where it wreaks further carnage. Until stopped by Statham.

This is not a film that is intended to be plausible. It’s not just the existence of the megalodon… or the underwater Shangri-la beneath the thermocline… or Statham’s various encounters with the megalodon…

The Meg is, essentially, one of those films ostensibly set in the present day but the tech is much better. Like 007. It could be a few years from now, but everything looks pretty much as it does in 2018. Except for the fancy tech. You expect this in Hollywood films. And even in television series. CSI was notorious for showcasing tech which didn’t actually exist. So the research submersibles in The Meg are better than the current state of the art. Fine. At least they mostly resemble current deep-diving research submersibles. Just better. Suspension of disbelief doesn’t even blip from neutral. Okay, the “glider”, which has a clear bubble for the pilot and can apparently reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench… well, maybe materials science is way better than, er, now… although that does beg the question: why not have clear bubbles on the research submersibles?

But the problems here all fall from a single mistake by the film-makers. The Mariana Trench is 11,000 metres deep. The pressure at the bottom is about 1100 atmospheres. That’s around 7.5 tons per square inch. Only three people have ever been that deep – Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh in 1960, and James Cameron in 2012. At that depth, 100 kg of water, which is 100 litres of water at sea level, actually has a volume of 95.27 litres. Because of the pressure. When the USS Thresher, the US Navy’s first nuclear-powered attack submarine, sank in 1963 in 2,600 metres of water, it’s estimated when she imploded the two sides of her pressure hull met at a combined speed of around 75,000 kph.

The pressure in the hadal zone cannot be stressed enough (no pun intended). The effect of increasing pressure with increasing depth cannot be stressed enough. The current record – simulated on land – for a human being with saturation diving gear is 701 metres. The current freediving depth record is 253.2 metres. Nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines and attack submarines generally do not go deeper than 300 metres. The deepest diving whale, Cuvier’s beaked whale, has been recorded reaching 2,992 metres. The sperm whale, perhaps the most impressive mammal on the planet (a personal opinion), can reach around 2,250 metres.

So when The Meg opens with Statham involved in a rescue of a downed USN fleet submarine on the floor of the Philippine Trench, 10,000 metres below the surface… Well, I was not impressed. Unfortunately this rescue – and Statham’s failure to save two of his colleagues – is important to the film’s plot. Because he failed to save his two colleagues, he retired. Because he’s the only person to have rescued some people from 10,000 metres, he’s the first choice to rescue the research submersible below the thermocline in the Mariana Trench…

But… but… but… That first rescue, the movie’s opening scene, is complete nonsense. An intact fleet submarine at 10,000 metres? The USS Thresher sank in a quarter of that depth and its wreckage was scattered over 13.4 hectares. But, I hear you cry, maybe this future sub – 55 years after the USS Thresher after all! – was made of much stronger materials. Given how expensive fleet submarines are – the USS Colorado, SSN-788, launched December 2016, allegedly cost $2.6 billion, and has a test depth of probably 250 to 300 metres – well, building a fleet submarine with a crew of 134 capable of reaching depths forty times deeper… would probably cost more than President Trump’s opinion of his own worth as a human being.

And yet… this is, I hear you say, completely irrelevant. It’s a film about a giant fucking prehistoric shark. Which reached lengths of 18 metres (bigger in the this film). Why cavil about submarines and submersibles and depths and pressures when the film is about a giant fucking prehistoric shark? All those facts quoted above, they mean nothing because it’s a film about a giant fucking prehistoric shark!

This is where we part company – myself, that is, and my imaginary critic(s) – because the megalodon, as the title of this post indicates, that’s the central conceit. The story is its scaffolding. Science fiction tropes work the same way. They’re either bolstered by the plot, or by exposition, or by the entire corpus of science fiction. Such as FTL. Or AI. Complete nonsense, both of them. But no one quibbles when they appear in a science fiction because the scaffolding for them has been built up over a century or more of genre publishing. There’s no willing suspension of disbelief required – it’s entirely unconscious. And yet it’s instructional what readers will willingly disbelieve. As Joe Abercrombie once tweeted (and I paraphrase as I don’t have the exact tweet to hand): “giant flying lizards who breathe fire? No problem. Female blacksmiths? INCONCEIVABLE!”. I had a similar response to my space opera, A Prospect of War. I decided my universe would not have gunpowder. Giant plasma cannons, yes; but all personal combat would be using swords. FTL? No problem. Giant plasma cannons? No problem. No gunpowder, not even bows and arrows? UNBELIEVABLE.

In every science fiction, we have a megalodon in the room. Sometimes it’s the central conceit, sometimes it’s what we have to tastefully ignore in order for the conceit not to destroy the reading experience. But that science fiction, that conceit, is embedded in a world, either of the author’s invention or recognisably the reader’s own. While space battleships can flit from star to star using FTL, stars are still stars, planets are still planets, and yes, okay, the vast distances between stars might be compressed in order for the space opera to better follow its eighteenth-century adventure template… but space is still space and vacuum is still vacuum.

So why isn’t the hadal zone still the hadal zone?

The megalodon: that’s the conceit, and the willing suspension of disbelief comes wrapped around it. Reject that and you reject the story. The rest, that’s world-building. That’s the setting for the conceit. So it requires some sparkly tech that doesn’t yet exist? Shrug. No problem. That’s what – in a movie – production design is for. And they generally do an excellent job. But that doesn’t mean the laws of physics, for example, which pertain in the world, and which are not bent out of shape in the presence of the conceit, should be flouted. It’s not trainspotting. It’s not even expecting the science in a science fiction to be accurate. (I mean, when a science fiction novel which sells itself on its absolutely correct science gets it wrong in the first chapter, who would be foolish enough to expect science fiction as a whole to get the science right?)

It’s an expectation of rigour; it’s an expectation of craft. Sometimes, these faux pas are either easily avoidable or easily justified within the text. Take the most egregious example to have occurred recently: dropping bombs in space in The Last Jedi? WTF? Bombs? In space? Did the director of the film not understand what zero gravity is? I mean, bombs? WTF? It’s just so fucking stupid. And yet… and yet…

All it took was one line: “Are we in the Star Destroyer’s gravity field yet?”

One line and… Woah! It actually makes sense.

To me, leaving out that line, failing to even think viewers would like an explanation… that smacks of contempt from the creators. They think viewers are too dumb to notice.

When failures of rigour or world-building could be explained in the story, and the creator does not do so, that’s a failure of craft. Of course, it could be deliberate. A lack of rigour could be a deliberate characteristic of the narrative. But when that’s the case, it’s generally obvious. It’s not the same as having a fleet sub survive at forty times its test depth. There are things a reader or viewer expects to have to disbelieve and things they don’t expect to have to disbelieve. And unless indicated otherwise, by signals in the text, convention dictates which is which.

There’s room to manoeuvre there, of course. Sufficient room, in fact, for some writers to have built careers in that space. But The Meg is not high literature, there’s nothing liminal or slipstream about it. It is a somewhat obvious attempt to cash in on a film genre previously occupied by mockbusters and low-budget B-movies. It does everything it needs to in order to meet the expectations which might accrue to it, given what it is and what it purports to be.

But if criticism means anything, if the study literature, or cinema, is of any worth, then no text should be considered as just “what it is” or “what it purports to be”.

 

 

 

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A weight of words

With Fantasycon and a quite successful trawl of the local charity shops, there’s a few more books than usual joining the collection. Here they are:

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After finding books seven and eight of CP Snow’s Strangers and Brothers in a charity shop, I needed to get a copy of book six, The New Men. This one I bought from eBay. As I did Windows in the Sea, which is signed (although since all the copies I found on eBay, on either side of the Atlantic, were signed, I suspect that means little). Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper I won in the raffle at the recent SFSF Social. And I stumbled across the topic of Trapped Under the Sea somewhere online and it sounded fascinating – so I bought the book.

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My Fantasycon purchases. Sunburnt Faces and Astra were both freebies. There were a number of books free for convention members to take, but most were epic fantasy. I did, however, persuade several people to pick up copies of David Herter’s excellent One Who Disappeared (which I already owned). I’d been meaning to buy I Remember Pallahaxi for a while after reading Hello Summer, Goodbye several years ago. In the end, I decided to get all three Coney books published by PS Publishing’s Drugstore Indian Press. Flower of Godonwy is a DIP original. I flicked through Rave and Let Die and was pleasantly surprised to see I was in it – or rather, a review of my Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (in point of fact, the second edition paperback of my novella uses a quote from Adam’s review on the front cover). The Heir To The North is Steve Poore’s novel, and he’s someone I’ve known for many years. I first saw chapters from this back when I was a member of the local sf and fantasy writers’ group. When Dave Barnett described the plot of popCult! at a local SFSF Social, I knew I’d have to pick up a copy. So I did.

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Some graphic novels: I’ve been waiting for ages for 2000 AD to publish their run of Dan Dare – I remember bits and pieces of it from reading it back in the 1970s and 1980s – and now, finally, we have Dan Dare: The 2000AD Years Vol 1. I’ve been buying The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer since the Cinebook editions first appeared (after stumbling across a volume of an earlier attempt to publish them in English, about twenty years ago in Abu Dhabi). The series is now up to number 21 with Plutarch’s Staff. Valerian and Laureline I also stumbled across in Abu Dhabi – again a handful of volumes from the series were published in English. I then started reading it in French, but Cinebook started publishing English translations a few years ago, and it’s now up to volume 10, Brooklyn Line, Terminus Cosmos.

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I had a bimble about the local charity shops recently, and someone seems to have got rid of a bunch of classic literature. Result. I still have Sokurov’s Dialogues With Solzhenitsyn to watch, but I thought I might try reading him first – so I was chuffed to find a copy of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I once tried reading For Whom The Bell Tolls but gave up halfway in; perhaps I’ll have more luck with The Old Man and the Sea (it is, at least, short). I keep an eye open for Nabokov’s books, but Invitation to a Beheading is apparently a Russian novel from the 1930s not published in English until 1959 (and not translated by Nabokov either). After watching Out Of Africa recently, I thought I might give Blixen a go, and promptly found Anecdotes of Destiny in a charity shop. Whenever I see books in the Crime Masterworks series, I buy them, irrespective of condition, as I just want to read them. Margaret Millar’s Beast In View is one I’ve not seen before. I’ve seen the film of Naked Lunch, but the only Burroughs I’ve read is The Soft Machine. Updike’s three Rabbit books are on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You list, so A Rabbit Omnibus was an economical find. And I’ve read most of McEwan’s books, although nothing since the disappointing Saturday – but I do have Solar on the TBR… and now Sweet Tooth


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We’re gonna need a bigger bookcase

I’ve been mostly good this year, and not bought as many books as in previous years. This does the mean the TBR is slowly getting whittled down… although I still reckon I have about a decade’s worth of reading on it.

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Dark Eden, of course, won the Arthur C Clarke Award back in 2013. Mother of Eden (2015) is the sequel. Eden (1959) is a reprint, rather than a first edition, but given its title, I couldn’t not mention it alongside the Beckett. Blue Gemini (2015) is a thriller based on an extended Gemini space programme, so its premise alone appeals. We shall see whether its story does. The small pamphlet, Beccafico, is actually a signed and numbered (I have #87 of 150) chapbook by Lawrence Durrell, published in 1968, and was a lucky eBay find.

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Déjà Vu (2014), Bête (2014) and Gestapo Mars (2015) I won in the raffle at the recent York pub meet. Ancillary Mercy (2015) I bought because I’ve read the previous two books, and given that the second book, Ancillary Sword, contributed very little to the shape of the trilogy, I’m intrigued to see how Leckie manages to pull it all together.

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A few charity shop finds. I’m a big fan of Marilynne Robinson’s fiction, but I’d never read her first, Housekeeping (1980) (I have her other three novels as signed first editions). Apparently, it was made into a film. Eustace & Hilda (1958) just looked like it might appeal, and since they didn’t have his Fly Fishing… Actually, it’s an omnibus edition of The Shrimp and the Anemone (1944), The Sixth Heaven (1946) and Eustace and Hilda (1947). And I’ve been picking up CP Snow’s Strangers and Brothers series when I find them, but only the 1960s Penguin editions seen here in Homecomings (1956) and The Affair (1959) with the orange and white design. I have seven of the eleven books so far (I’ve read the first two).

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Haynes have been branching out from car manuals for a few years, not just books about real spacecraft, such as Soyuz and Gemini as here, but also fictional ones – not to mention aircraft, ships, submarines and even tanks. The books don’t actually show you how to repair, say, a Soyuz, should you find yourself drifting helplessly in orbit in one, but they do present good solid and factual coverage of their topic. Manned Submersibles (1976) was an eBay find, and covers exactly what its title claims.


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Reading diary, #14

In an effort to increase my reading, I’ve decided to spend an hour reading without distractions as soon as I get home from work. Previously, I’d either be straight onto the computer, making dinner, or watching telly. I’m still chipping slowly away at the TBR, but there are so many books on it I want to read. I’d also like to tackle some weightier books, without spending a whole month on a single novel. I’ve averaged around 150 books a year for the past five or six years, but that’s been steadily dropping from a high of around 220 back in the late 1990s. But that was when I was in Abu Dhabi, where the telly was shit and I had no internet connection at home…

malechildA Male Child, Paul Scott (1956). Scott’s Raj Quartet is an astonishing set of novels and, for good reason, considered a classic of postwar British literature. I loved and admired it so much, I started collecting Scott’s other novels – not an easy task as only the Raj Quartet, and its sequel, Staying On, remain in print. But I managed it. And… The Raj Quartet is definitely a high-water mark in his writing career. Which is not to say his other books are bad. They’re just… not as interesting. I can see how for their time they might be a little out-of-the-ordinary, but from the twenty-first century I suspect the differences are too slight to stand out. A Male Child is set in 1947, just after the war has finished. The narrator, Ian Canning, has returned to the UK after service in India. During the war, he caught a tropical disease and has suffered from ill health ever since. He doesn’t have much of a career – he was a publisher’s reader before the war, and he tries to pick this up again. Then he bumps into Alan Hurst, a fellow officer and friend from India, who suggests the narrator writes a biography of HUrst’s aunt, a popular writer during the 1910s and 1920s. To this end, he suggests Canning comes to live with him and his mother – given Canning’s flat was sublet to a friend while he was in India and said friend is reluctant to vacate, it seems a good idea. He’s given the bedroom of Hurst’s younger brother, killed during the War, and idolised by their mother, in a large house that once belonged to the family but has now been broken up into flats. The plot is basically Canning trying to come to terms with civilian life and his illness, while caught up in a somewhat uncomfortable family situation. It’s a nice, well-observed piece of prose, with some lovely writing. But there’s little in it to stand out.

divingDiving for Science, Edward H Shenton (1972). The subtitle to this book does a pretty good job of describing its contents: “The Story of the Deep Submersible”. It’s a potted history, and a rough guide to the workings, of research submersibles, chiefly those which descend to around 2,000 feet or deeper. Some of the more interesting incidents in which submersibles have been involved – Trieste’s descent to Challenger Deep, the sinking and recovery of DSV Alvin, the hunt for the USS Thresher, the recovery of a lost USAF atom bomb off the coast of Spain, the Ben Franklin two-thousand mile underwater journey – are mentioned, but in no great detail. There’s a chapter on how submersibles function, and another on their legal certification. An appendix lists details for every submersible built up to that point. The book does point out that by 1970, their use was beginning to wane, and many had been mothballed – chiefly because they’re expensive to build and run, and cheaper options were available. These days, of course, ROVs and AUVs are more often used than actual submersibles and, except for James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger and four bathyscaphes built and operated by China (there’s very little info about these online), the handful of deep-diving submersibles currently operating are generally limited to 20,000 feet (6,000 metres). Despite being more than forty years old, this is still a useful book.

dreamshipsDreamships, Melissa Scott (1992). I’ve always suspected that if I’d come across Scott’s novels in the 1980s I’d have probably started following her career. Admittedly, this is only the third novel by her I’ve read, but I did really like the previous two, Shadow Man and The Kindly Ones. But Scott’s books were not easy to find in the UK back then – only her Silence Leigh trilogy and The Kindly Ones appear to have been published here. Having said all that, Dreamships was a little disappointing. Anyway, a review of it will be appearing soon on SF Mistressworks.

exploring_deepExploring the Deep Frontier, Sylvia A Earle & Al Giddings (1980). I don’t normally bother to mention coffee table books, especially ones published by National Geographic (not that I own many of them, in fact I think this is the only one). But Exploring the Deep Frontier is a pretty good run-through of underwater exploration – the history and the state-of-the-art as of 1980 – and, unsurprisingly, contains a number of especially nice photographs. That’s Earle there on the cover in a JIM suit. She also leads an all-female team in the Tekton underwater habitat, rides in a submersible, and dives in various places around the world. She provides the text of the book, which switches between her own first-person experiences, and a quick history of underwater exploration. Giddings is the photographer. A pretty book. It’s just a shame my copy is so tatty (an eBay purchase, natch), but given it’s 36 years old I suppose that’s understandable. It’s also sadly disappointing that Exploring the Deep Frontier is subtitled “The Adventure of Man in the Sea” when the author is a woman and the bulk of the text covers her adventures.

wolvesWolves, Simon Ings (2014). I missed reading this earlier in the year even though it was shortisted for the BSFA Award. (It lost out to the disappointing Ancillary Sword.) I’d actually read five of the eight shortlisted books, but had I read Wolves when I filled in my ballot I might well have made it my first choice. I’m surprised it didn’t make it the Clarke. Anyway, the narrator works for a start-up which is developing Augmented Reality – a combination of Google Glasses, Heads-Up Displays and VR – which is bought out by a media mogul. Much of the novel, however, covers the narrator’s past, when he grew up in a hotel used chiefly as a hospice for blinded soldiers, who were fitted with a form of seeing-eye technology by his inventor father. His mother suffered from mental health problems, and would often disappear often to some Greenham Common-type protest camp for weeks at a time. One day, he finds her body in the boot of his father’s car. She has committed suicide. Too scared to tell his father, he disposes of the body himself. It is never found. The mystery of her “disappearance” is one of the narrative threads in Wolves. Another describes the slow collapse of country (I may be misremembering, but I don’t think its setting is categorically stated). And then there’s the identity of the mogul, who proves to be one of his father’s patients all those years ago. The plot is perhaps a little confused in places, but the writing is excellent, the dark surreal tone extremely well done, and, like Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies, I’m surprised this book didn’t generate more of a fuss when it was published. But then, like Theroux’s novel, it’s not the sort of book that fits in with the genre’s current narrative…

steersmanThe Lost Steersman, Rosemary Kirstein (2003). I stumbled across the first book of this series, The Steerswoman, in a charity shop several years ago and bought it because I vaguely recalled someone telling me it was good. I really liked it – and said so in my review on SF Mistressworks (here). I liked the sequel, The Outskirter’s Secret, even more (see here). So it’s fair to say I had high expectations of The Lost Steersman. And… it sort of almost nearly met them. Rowan is now in the port town of Alemeth after leaving the Outskirts. There’s a Steerswomen’s Annex there, so she hopes to consult its thousands of volumes for more clues about Routine Bioform Clearance, the spell which opens up new lands to the east and so allowing for human expansion, but which appears to have stopped and is being misused by the evil wizard Slado. But the Alemeth steerswoman has died and has left the Annex in a right state, so Rowan has to get it all sorted out. And then demons, creatures from the Outskirts, begin to attack the town… Although couched in the language of fantasy, this is clearly science fiction, and Kirstein cleverly reveals more of the ecology of the world as Rowan investigates. Unfortunately, the first half of the novel is slow and a bit dull, and things only begin to get really interesting when Rowan sails south looking for Slado’s hidden fortress. She doesn’t find it – but what she does find tells the reader more about the world than it tells Rowan. They’re good books, these. The paperbacks are long out of print, but they’re still available as ebooks. Worth getting.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 116