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Showing posts from 2011

Cheating Death: Star Trek II and III

I watched the first three Star Trek movies back-to-back last night, tweeting as I went. I've always liked the first film for the things that it usually gets criticised for: its slow pace, 'transcendent' story, lack of 'action'. Its special effects by Doug Trumbull (with help from John Dykstra) are striking, with clear nods to 2001's Stargate sequence when the Enterprise penetrates V'ger's cloud, and the opening tour around the Enterprise in space-dock is so good that it's reprised at the beginning of Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan. This was partly for budgetary reasons, re-using the first film's footage, but the recognisability of some of the shots (as they pass the Enterprise's rear bay doors a man in an environment suit descends head-first; when the Enterprise gets under way, a worker in a suit stops to wave them goodbye) lends familiarity, a very literal sense that we've been here before.

Wrath of Khan trades on this familiarity. Its …

The Man Who Fell to Earth

I read Walter Tevis's The Man Who Fell to Earth over the summer. At the beginning of the novel, as in the film, a man walks out of the American desert into a dusty town. There, he pawns a solid gold ring for cold cash. Outside the town, he checks both a roll of cash, and a hundred more gold rings: this is his 'stake', so to speak, his means by which to operate in 20th century America. He buys food and returns to a camp outside the town. In a following scene, he seeks out a patent lawyer and asks him to act as an agent; the basic patents he shows the lawyer would net him a further $300 million - which 'isn't enough'.

Enough for what? The man who fell to Earth is Jerome Thomas Newton, a literal alien from a drought-stricken planet, who finds that not only does he have gold rings and technology to sell America, he is an excellent businessman. Soon he accrues a large fortune and control of a major corporation; so major, in fact, that it begins to attract ths attent…

Writing Shiva

Over the past two weeks I have been publishing a twitternovel called 'Shiva' (@SciFiBaker), in 14 parts, 10 tweets per 'set'. I wrote it partly because of my interest in the literature of constraint, such as that prouced bhy the OuLiPo group (Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and others) who devised arbitrary constraints (Perec's A Void lacks the letter 'e') or mathematical processes as compositional tools: the constraint itself was intended to be generative, to produce an imaginative response.

This was the way I approached writing the text. I had been writing an article about science and literature using the idea of 'bifurcations' found in dynamic systems in physics, an idea drawn from the work of Ilya Prigogine. I originally used this back in my MA dissertation in the early 1990s, in writing about William Gibson's 'Sprawl' trilogy of cyberpunk novels, but returned to it after I found references to Prigogine in the work of…

Annakin

Last night, I watched a couple of episodes of series 2 of The Clone Wars with my 6 year old daughter, Isobel. We both like The Clone Wars, and for myself, the series does a much better job of articulating Lucas's ideas about the Jedi than the prequel trilogy is ever able to do. In particular, Annakin's journey from padawan to Obi-Wan's equal to Darth Vader always seemed under-motivated to me, partly through the execrable script in Attack of the Clones, and partly through Hayden Christianson's limitations as an actor in that film and in Revenge of the Sith.

The idea that Annakin wishes to forestall the death of Padme as a kind of psychological effect of the loss of his mother doesn't really work for me; how does this explain his fall to the 'dark side', and in particular the scene where he enters the Jedi temple to slay all the younglings? How does this square with him soon to become a father? While I think it's an interesting thing for Lucas to do to mak…

on Starship Troopers

Here's a short section from my book Masculinity in Fiction and Film:

The rhetoric of the frontier [...] is clearly crucial to science fictions that involve contact (and warfare) with alien species. Alasdair Spark suggested that Heinlein should be considered a ‘Social Darwinist, whose ideal society is one in which the individual is free to rise to his “natural” level of power, wealth, and authority'. The same may be said of the model of competition, between humans and Bugs as competing colonists, that Heinlein employs macrocosmically in Starship Troopers. Victory, in the MI troopers war, will produce the colonial hegemon. Ziauddin Sardar has suggested that ‘Wherever we look, the colonising, imperial mission of science fiction is hard to miss. Space, the final frontier, is the recurrent frontier on which Western thought has been constructed and operated throughout history, or time’. Domination is legitimated through the pseudo-Darwinist competition for resources. Politically, th…

The Time Machine

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‘Scientific people know very well that Time is only a kind of Space’, says the Traveller in Wells's The Time Machine. That being so, of course, it is incumbent upon him to explore it. He mounts his chrono-cycle with only a few items in his pocket, and sets off into the future. I'm always reminded of pictures taken of Empire explorers and adventurers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as the Mallory-Irvine expedition to Mount Everest in 1924. In the photo here, (from the Natural History Museum website), the expedition look as though they might be about to have a walk in slightly inclement weather somewhere on Hampstead Heath, rather than trying to ascend the highest mountain in the world. This is how I imagine the Traveller, somewhat unprepared, somewhat naive, about to trust to luck and his own wits.

The adventurer-hero of Imperial Romance is easiest identified with the figure of Allan Quartermain, protagonist of several books by H.Rider Haggard, and more recent…

Two-a-day

I've found keeping up to date on the blog difficult over the last few months. Tiredness at the end of the last academic year, then a need to rest and recuperate over the summer meant that I only posted again last week. With the new year, new ENGL365 classes beginning tomorrow, I'm going to post once a week until Christmas on a topic related to the classes the week after next is Wells and The Time Machine, so expect a post on that later in the week.

The title comes from Gibson, and Count Zero. I've never quite known what it refers to. But if I can't mange two-a-day, I'll go for once-a-week.

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Close Encounters

The other day, I caught the end of James Cameron’s The Abyss (1990) and thought: so, alien beings are angelic jellyfish that read text messages? It’s all very bathetic. The mock-profundity of the sequence where Ed Harris is saved by the underwater beings conspicuously lacks the sense of wonder that Steven Spielberg achieves in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), let alone Kubrick’s much more radical means by which to imagine the transcendent in the Stargate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). When the giant sea/spacecraft emerges from the deep, with US Navy ships left stranded on it like so many bathtime toys, the result is curiously unengaging. There is, of course, a long-standing connection between the oceanographic and the cosmological, not least in Arthur C. Clarke’s long-standing love-affair with the sea (he abandoned Europe and went to live in Sri Lanka), but The Abyss, with its ending of a clinch between husband and wife Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, stan…

La Question Humaine

After five months' silence...

Anyway. Nicolas Klotz's La Question Humaine (2007), released in the UK as Heartbeat Detector, is presented on the dvd box blurb as a near-future dystopia in the the tradition of Godard's Alphaville, a film that uses contemporaneous Paris as a setting for a narrative that seems to be set on another world. Klotz's film self-consciously restricts the viewer's perception of a wider world: the narrative is limited to office buildings, nondescript urban streets, and one short automobile ride taken by a secondary character to a car park, where he is left by his chauffeur. While the plate-glass, overlit offices resemble the kind of architectural indices used by Alan J. Pakula's paranoid conspiracy movies in the early- to mid-1970s (Klute, The Parallax View, All The President's Men) to signify a cultural and political pathology at work, what La Question Humaine seems to probe in its first hour is a Ballardian anomie. The film's prota…

Toy Story 3

contains spoilers!

Upfront, let me say this: I love Pixar's films, and have done since Toy Story came out in 1995. I cried in the silent montage sequence at the beginning of Up; wondered at the dazzling beauty of Finding Nemo; even, belatedly, enjoyed Cars (which is about Route 66 Americana rather than NASCAR) and in fact got my biggest Pixar belly-laugh from that film. My favourite Pixar film, though, is Toy Story 2, a work of absolute genius: smart, very funny, self-conscious, beautifully designed and engineered, and with a marvellously circular script that gives a very satisfying sense of completion. And it's utterly postmodern, in that it's a sleek, shiny object of desire that complicitly critiques consumerism and spectacle.

Therefore, I was in two minds about Toy Story 3. If you can make a sequel that is better than the original (as I think Toy Story 2 does with Toy Story), could even Pixar make lightning strike twice (or catch lightning in a bottle twice, more like)? I…

Afrofuturism

Almost exactly a year ago, the blogosphere proclaimed 'the death of science fiction' (see, for instance, here or here). In a reaction to what was perceived as the institutional biases within sf as unreconstructedly patriarchal, white, ideologically conservative/reactionary and incapable of properly dealing with (a) science and (b) the changing nature of contemporary technology and its impact upon everyday life, several writers lamented the state of contemporary sf, suggesting that it must change or die. This, of course, is an old story: Ursula LeGuin, in putting together the Norton Book of Science Fiction in the late-1990s, inveighed against such biases and attempted, in her selection, to tell another story about sf. We cannot undo the history of sf, however, while admitting those biases; the consternation among some (male) sf writers about LeGuin's revisionist project (and the way she handled the selection of some stories by white male writers) was not only a sense of agg…