Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’

Cogito: John Branch

October 23, 2014


JB photo-painting by RC 2



The Peripheral: Futures Imperfect

The future has been worrying us lately. A good deal of conversation has taken place online about how it looks to us, in fact as well as in fiction, and how that matters. A smart example is Virginia Postrel’s 10/08/14 post on Bloomberg View, though it’s not, and doesn’t pretend to be, comprehensive.

William Gibson’s new book has something to add to this. After working with the future in his early fictions, he steadily moved his settings closer to the present, and his previous three books (sometimes called the Bigend trilogy) took place more or less in the here and now. In a move that seems remarkably well timed, Gibson has returned to the future in The Peripheral, and what he finds there isn’t likely to please those who are afraid of the dark.

The story is a doozy, a complex and elaborate version of athe peripheral basic thriller scenario: Somebody saw something happen, and someone else is now after them because of it. The task for the main characters is to figure out what they’re mixed up in, and Gibson aligns our interest with theirs by giving us a similar experience, requiring us to make sense of what we’ve gotten into. There are no thumbnail sketches of characters as we meet them, no explanatory descriptions of world elements as we encounter them. The novel employs a tactic of indirect and delayed exposition that begins with the first sentence: “They didn’t think Flynne’s brother had PTSD, but that sometimes the haptics glitched him.”

We soon learn a little about Flynne’s brother. But who is Flynne herself, whose point of view we follow in the first chapter? Who is Netherton, the man with a hangover whom we follow in the second chapter? What kind of world does he live in, where phone calls seem to present themselves directly to his eyes and ears? What’s the connection between these two? Scores of pages pass before we can work that out, although a parallel between them soon emerges: Flynne witnesses a death in what she believes to be a game-world version of London, Netherton witnesses a death on a strange island of repurposed plastic in the Pacific, and each of them ends up in trouble because of it. But who died, and why, and who’s after them? As the novel’s short chapters (averaging 3.9 pages each) alternate between these two, tentative answers arrive, the picture develops, and further questions accumulate.

Gibson’s method is fascinating and is one of the book’s major pleasures. It shares something with noirish fictions of the past in which the truth about the nature of things takes time to emerge, but the way Gibson proceeds has more in common with a modern-day style in which interpreting the story is a game of collecting and connecting numberless bits of information.lost The TV series Lost may be the most extreme example: that was a hugely baroque exercise in casting the viewer as Tantalus, for whom a coherent and comprehensive explanation always eluded his grasp. Lost piled up perplexities, but you won’t find them in The Peripheral; Gibson isn’t interested in bafflement. Bit by bit, with many small, deft moves, a large structure is assembled before your eyes—much like the way 3-D printing operates.

That’s not to say that everything is explained. A degree of uncertainty is part of the game. Indeterminacy litters the story, in such statements as these:

Something flew into [the woman’s] mouth.”

Looks like the thing we’re printing is for doing something that something a lot more evolved could do a lot better.”

Netherton…looked like he was standing in the back of something’s throat, all pink and shiny.”

Something stilled the part of him that knitted narrative…”

In a way, Gibson is again dramatizing what the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry for him (speaking of the Bigend trilogy) called “the indecipherability of the real world,” though the real world in The Peripheral is in the future.

Actually, there are two plotlines and two futures in The Peripheral. One of the futures—I’ll call it Neartime—is a pretty recognizable extension of our present and takes place in an economically depressed, small-town region of the American South. Here, gaming for pay is one way of making money—Flynne did it in the past but gave it up for work in a 3-D print shop, and her brother’s been doing it lately—but most people earn their living from illegal drugs, manufactured by way of nanotech, and drug money has corrupted the county political system. Gaming now relies on a form of virtual reality, but phones are still, as in our world, separate objects. That’s no longer the case in Fartime, the second plotline, which is situated in London 70-odd years later. Here, “phones” include video and have been integrated into people’s bodies, controlled with a tongue tap on the roof of the mouth, and that’s just the beginning of the differences.

In a sense, this is the future of Neartime, but in another sense it’s not. Gibson proposes that someone in Fartime has figured out how to communicate with the past but that, once you establish a connection, that entire world branches off, detaches itself from your history, goes its own way. You can tinker with one of these stubs, as they’re called, all you want without affecting your world; doing so is one of the hobbies of Netherton’s idle-rich friend, Lev, a scion of the Russian kleptocracy, which wields much influence here. What’s more, because communications with that past world are two-way, someone in your stub can employ a form of telepresence and participate in your world.

gibsonThat summary says very little about the novel, but it includes an important point. Gibson has always been concerned with the blurred boundary between the virtual and the real. In The Peripheral we have two entire worlds that are, to some extent, unreal to each other. From the standpoint of characters in Fartime, Flynne’s world exists and must be dealt with (they need her help in solving the murder she saw), and yet that world doesn’t matter in that it has no other bearing on their present. They’re connected with a past that was, but no longer is, their own. Similarly, Flynne and the others in Neartime come to know the future to which they had been headed, but they still can’t know where they’re going instead. The people of The Peripheral are detached from both past and future, stuck in the volatility of the now.

As is his wont, Gibson reverts to convention when it comes time to resolve the story. The habit upsets some readers. “I don’t like novels that end happily,” says Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest, Act II. “They depress me so much.” Likewise, the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry remarked of Gibson’s work that his tidy plot resolutions “[diminish] the impact of his harsh visions.” It should be remembered that Cecily’s complaint leads to Miss Prism’s oft-quoted observation, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” This entitles us to regard an ending as a mere matter of form and to look elsewhere for the substance of a story, which is how we can best judge The Peripheral. In this work, the weight resides, not in the neatness of its final chapters, but in all that comes before, where tech junkies will find much to get high on, and where readers sensitive to Gibson’s immense craftsmanship will discern much to worry about.

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Apollo’s Girl

August 27, 2014



Strange (but Interesting!) Lands:
International Sci-Fi

Days of Eclipse

Watching the opening/credit sequence of a film can tell you a lot about what may follow. In America, the shots of a car (or motorcycle, bus, SUV) speeding down a highway are legion, but often disguise the story to come. It’s like an iconic camouflage that the director uses to pull us into what happens next. But what happens next can be a disappointment. So imagine the reaction to what hits you as Days of Eclipse takes off (literally) somewhere in Turkmenistan. You hear children laughing, then fly, faster and faster into a bleached-out forsaken settlement in the desert filled with camels and leprous old people like inmates of a penal colony. This is, perhaps, real life, but more like a living hell. Music is provided by a sour accordian, and what sounds like a chorus of souls in torment.

Based roughly on a novel (Definitely Maybe: A Billion Years to the End of the World) by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Days of Eclipse is Aexander Sokurov’s rebellious, wildly imaginative and erratic personal creation dreamed up as a response to the novel, but certainly more to the waning days of the USSR. It shifts from color to black and white frequently, making delerious jumps from quasi-realistic dnizatmeniasokurovarbitscenes into indecipherable fugue states whose meaning for the filmmaker we can only guess at. Symbols, visual and aural, are everywhere, challenges to be decoded. There is a doctor/hero (Alexei Ananishnov)—a kind of Parsifal who fends off hostility, erotic advances, mysterious forces, corpses, angels, and disease. But nothing is what it seems in the desert. If you prefer a neat synopsis of the plot, try Wikipedia. However, I guarantee you it’s much more interesting to release the brakes and let yourself fly next to the pilot, wherever he decides to take you.

In the Dust of the Stars

Words almost failed me in response to this glorious (and totally unexpected) treat from East Germany—a mashup of every old serial and/or Sci-Fi futuristic feature, from Flash Gordon to Star Wars, as seen by a culture trying desperately to imitate the genre while having as good a time as possible doing it. The result? A total hoot! There are dancing alien maidens in filmy threads, visiting heroes and heroines in tights and boots, and hordes of suffering minions in rags, endlessly digging for minerals like their predecessors in Das Rheingold. Plus the surprise appearance of ekkehard schallthe Devil in a Cape—Ekkehard Schall himself—then Director and star of the Berliner Ensemble, and son-in-law of Bertolt Brecht. While Schall excelled at Brecht’s iconic canon, and at his lesser-known but notable poetry, even at playing Liszt in Tony Palmer’s Wagner (alongside Richard Burton and Vanessa Redgrave), never has he enjoyed himself more (watch him swirl that scarlet schmata)! The story and the special effects may be a little clunky, but the energy and struggle with humor peeking through the Prussian earnestness are to be applauded.

Strange Lands is one of the most interesting series ever mounteed by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, spotlighting not only a period that deserves another look, but offering examples of films (mostly from the Eastern Bloc, from 1958 – 1988) that have seldom, if ever, been seen here. They also deserve repeat screenings, and the establishment of an annual festival. For more information and remaining films:


The Notebook
opens August 29 in NYC (Quad Cinema) and LA (Laemmle Royal)

The Notebook is remarkable for many reasons—for one, in its ability to shed light on the darkest corners of human nature and what it is capable of—while remaining objective, rather in the same way that The White Ribbon kept you enthralled without a discernible hero or heroine. In The Notebook, there are brief moments of kindness, almost always turned inside out before they emerge as gnarled offerings in a cruel world. Yet it’s hard to look away from its chilly shorthand.

Notebook-2_webAt the center of the film are identical twins (László and András Gyémant, called simply One and Other). When their parents send them to their grandmother’s in the country (thinking they will be out of harm’s way) in the waning days of World War II, they are told to keep a notebook of everything they see, everything they think. It anchors them through what follows. Their grandmother is called a witch by the villagers, a woman who probably poisoned her husband and has not seen her daughter in twenty years; she is a cruel taskmaster. The twins are worked hard, disciplined for every infraction, given no affection and fed little. Their lessons are learned slowly but forever: the world is a hard place, and they cannot expect to live as they did.

Instead, they punish each other and deny themselves sleep and even the meagerest scraps in order to become strong enough to feel nothing. Every day they study their Bible and write and draw the life around them in their notebook. Brief animations of the drawings are subtle and effective in showing what cannot always be told. And always, in the corner of the all-seeing twins’ eyes, the town’s secrets—a construction project (a concentration camp), the murder of its rebels, and the deportation of its Jews are noted and recorded. The way in which these events are deftly integrated into the foreground of wretched human interaction is another remarkable facet of director János Szász’ skill at translating this dark novel, by Agota Kristof, to the screen.

Yet the twins make occasional awkward attempts to help others, usually with disastrous results, which only serve to harden their almost-frozen hearts. And every action has a reaction that complicates the plot. But One and Other prevail, finally, and will survive. Szász and his cinematographer, Christian Berger (of White Ribbon fame), have remained faithful to Kristof’s novel, whose script (by Szász, Kristof, and Andras Szekér) is a marvel of substance and refinement, with the power of a rapier.

(The Notebook is the winner of the Grand Prix Crystal Globe at Karlovy Vary.)

Cogito: John Branch

October 22, 2013

Film, Books, Science

JB photo-painting by RC 2

Defying Gravity

In Children of Men (2006), adapted from a children of mennovel by P.D. James, changed extensively by five screenwriters, and  directed by Alfonso Cuarón, the sociopolitical element of James’s novel has been subordinatedto the central character’s progress from detachment to purpose. The entire film carries a blunted impact, because much of the story’s context is blurred or has been dissolved away. At times it’s hard cuaron2to understand or even to believe what’s going on. At least Clive Owen’s character has a life history and relationships, and the challenge he reluctantly adopts catalyzes the stages of his development.

Children of Men represents a species of anti-realistic filmmaking in which people are abstracted from much of their world, leaving a presumed essence: someone facing the situation of the moment, which can be rendered as virtuosically as desired. In one unbroken sequence, a car in which the central characters are riding is attacked on a country road for no apparent reason except that, gosh, the world has become a bad place, and besides, something needs to happen for the sake of the plot. The scene is nearly pointless but also a true technical marvel.

Cuarón has taken that abstracting process much further in Gravity (in general release). Here he works again with cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki, from a script he wrote with Jonás Cuarón, his son.

The world has now literally been removed to the background, along with all but two specimens of humankind. The film transpires in orbit, with the great globe itself (to borrow from Prospero) not dissolved but put firmly in its place, as Cuarón seems to think, somewhere beneath us. The situation is simple but desperate: two astronauts, deprived of their shuttle-shelter, must find a new vehicle that can take them home. As in the road sequence of Children of Men, bad things happen; reasons are given, which appear to satisfy many viewers, but they’re almost all scientifically dubious. The real reason for what happens is, again, that Cuarón and Lubezki want a chance to show some tricks. They can make you believe that they do impossible things before breakfast. But their movie is little more than a kinetic thrill ride, the newest thing in an amusement park.

In Gravity, Sandra Bullock doesn’t play a traditional action hero—bullok clooneyshe doesn’t wield a kick, a punch, a head-butt, a knife, a sword, a crossbow, or any form of firearm, for which I’m grateful—but she gets knocked around a lot all the same. In fact, she and George Clooney are bounced about like ballsin a pinball game. For much of the movie, these two capable and respected actors are reduced to the status of mere moving masses.

The movie is only 91 minutes long but is so short on ideas that it keeps repeating itself. A cloud of orbiting malevolent debris keeps trying to kill our heroes. They keep jetting off to a new refuge and finding, so to speak, no room at the inn. Sandra Bullock keeps opening an airlock from the outside and being caught off guard by what happens. The film even shows us its title three separate times. Mostly, it keeps indulging in a mechanistic orgy of things, including people, getting flung around.

Imagine a scene set on an ice rink, with Sandra Bullock standing on the ice and holding the rail at the side of the rink. If George Clooney went whizzing by her, and she managed to grab his tie, he’d come to a stop, right?You know that if you know anything about ice rinks, and you know that if she then released his tie he’d stay put. Now imagine a scene set in Earth orbit, in which Bullock is essentially attached to a space station, so she’s stationary. When Clooney passes by, she grabs a tether that’s attached to him. This is exactly how a scene in Gravity begins.

gravity5What happens next? Clooney comes to a halt, but the movie shows that some mysterious force keeps trying to pull him away. The zero-G environment is irrelevant (though the eminent Neil deGrasse Tyson implied otherwise); this wouldn’t happen on an ice rink any more than it would happen in space. The mysterious force pulling on Clooney is only the screenwriters, who want to force a climactic decision on him. Many more absurdities having to do with physics and astronauts working in space occur in Gravity. And that’s only one category of its problems.

In a way, it’s naïve to complain about Gravity’s scientific-technical cheats. But some remarkable works with which it might be comparedfor instance the novel Moby-Dick (there’s a fine LA Review of Books essay here, though I disagree with it) and the movie 2001: A Space Odysseyhave told their astounding 2001--A-Space-Odyssey-the-60s-701989_1024_768tales without abandoning realism. Yes, 2001 turns mystical at the end, but as long as it’s operating in the known universe, it follows the rules of physics. Fact need not be opposed to enchantment.

Gravity is like a bad horror film crossed with a bad disaster film. It keeps throwing shocks and threats at its characters simply to keep things happening. It wouldn’t exist without science and technology. Its making required them; the situation it shows—people and machines in Earth orbit—depends on them. Yet it frequently violates science. This encapsulates an ongoing mystery of American life: our culture depends on the fruits of science and technology but disdains both and would rather believe in angels. Curiously, Gravity includes an angel, in a manner of speaking.

As far as I know, only a few people share my overall distaste for this film: the friend with whom I saw it—we could be dismissed as crackpots—and New Yorker critic Richard Brody, who cannot.

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Apollo’s Girl

August 18, 2013


Elysium: One Hell of a Ride

Director Neill Blomkamp, who swallowed CGI whole in one prodigious gulp in large_district9his mid-teens, went on to deploy his mastery with a series of advertising and dramatic short films, and with the serio-comic feature District 9 in 2009. It skewered South Africa’s heritage of apartheid and economic inequality with marvelously homely aliens as the underdogs, and starred Blomkamp’s former employer (producer Sharlto Copley) copley district 9as a mousey bureaucrat-cum-hero who finally stands to deliver them from unspeakable earthly cruelties.  What made it special was Blomkamp’s  unswerving commitment to its reflection of  realpolitik, balanced by his delight in messing about with effects. So it was an originalsci-fi with a purpose, heart, mind, and tongue in cheek. 

Attention was paid by the critics and increasingly by the studios, impressed by its ballooning profit margin. Although finding accurate current totals is something of a slippery slope, there is general agreement that District 9 cost about 30 million dollars, and has made some several hundred million since its initial release.  Of course opportunity knocked. The question was: what would Blomkamp do next?

Behold Elysium! It’s bigger, bolder, and a tad less original than District 9, with bonafide international stars (Matt Damon, Jodie Foster) and again Sharlto Copleythis time as a copleytruly larger-than-life incarnation of purest villainy.  But Blomkamp’s ideas still drive the story, with the haves and have-nots playing out a familiar (and wholly plausible) economic scenario in the not-too-distant future. What keeps it above the heavy-handed action category is partly Damon’s radiant goodness (and the evil duo of Foster and Copley), but even more the evidence of Blomkamp’s passionate love for special effects. Not just the sets, but especially for the shuttles that constantly whiz from Earth (dying of pollution and poverty) to the space station (Elysium) where the 1% live, seemingly forever, in perfect control. The shuttles, from sleek capsules blomkampon scheduled runs, to rogue rustbelt wonders a hair’s breadth from crashing and burning, are Blomkamp’s favorite toys.  And he really knows how to play with them so we just can’t quit the game. Although Elysium is closer to a comic book spirit than its predecessor (it is, after all, a studio film), Blomkamp’s heart remains in the right place.  Let’s hope it stays there…

Cinema of Resistance: Film Society of Lincoln Center

This is an extraordinarily well-curated series that will run from August 28 through September 3 at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Center. As an antidote to the current avalanche of worldly woes on every side, and the exhaustion and anomie it produces, it focuses on specific conflicts that sparked real opposition and, eventually, peace.  Of course there were lessons to be learned (most urgently that those who forget history are destined to repeat it). But they were decades ago. So perhaps its subtitle should be Lest We Forget.

far fromOne cause for celebration is a newly restored print of Far From Vietnam, shown at the New York Film Festival in 1967. A collaborative film by some very big names (Jean-Luc Godard, Joris Ivens, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Agnés Varda), it explodes with the anguish of the long, long war, but also revealsin a raucous sequence shot in New Yorkwhat it was like to be here when people not only took to the streets to protest, but participated in only-in-New York screaming matches of raw vitriol and principle en route.  This landmark movie hasn’t a frame of exhaustion or anomie to its name.

By way of comparison, Icarus Films is offering Far From Afghanistanafghanistananother collaborative film–that’s right here, right now, featuring the longest war in US history and how it has impacted both the occupiers and the occupied; there are no winners this time around, nor is the end truly in sight. No one is taking to the streets these days, and most of the contention is behind closed doors in Congress. Lessons not learned…Andre Gregory stars.

20 in aures 2rene vautierOne of the series’ rediscoveries is René Vautier’s haunting To Be 20 in the Aurès, a fiction film from 1972. The French did not give Algeria its independence until 1962, and then only after years of violence that targeted both the colony and the French capital. A long, hard look at how the French treated their subjects, To Be 20 follows a unit of pacifists from Brittany who are conscripted to fight abroad, with bitter results. But it rises far above the army buddy genre familiar to Americans because the soldiers are both occupiers and colonists. Their suffering is 20 in aures 1balanced by their contempt for the Algerians they oppose. Yet the Algerians have inherited a culture of which the French know next to nothing; the desert is punctuated with ancient ruins and pictographs that beg for contemplation that never comes. The entire cast (including Alexandre Arcady and a young Phillipe Léotard) is outstanding. Don’t miss it!

For a complete schedule for Cinema of Resistance: screenings

Fearless Predictions

June 2, 2012

Uncle Vanya (June 7–July 15, Soho Rep): Chekhov’s 1897 play is being presented in a “new version,” adapted by Annie Baker. Baker is in the unusual position of having shared an Obie award with herself, for two plays produced in New York in 2009: Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens. The director who helped shape her work in those plays, Sam Gold, is staging this one. Baker’s widely praised skills with natural dialogue and lost-soul characters make this a good bet. Incidentally, in Uncle Vanya Chekhov illustrates his oft-repeated maxim: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired” (though in this case it’s fired even later). Information on the production and related events here 
(‘Tis the season for Vanya productions—one earlier this spring by Target Margin preceded Soho Rep’s. And there’s more.)

Uncle Vanya,  Sydney Theatre Company (July 19–28),
Lincoln Center Festival):
In midsummer, yet another will arrive, delivered by the Sydney Theatre Company, with co-Artistic Directors Cate Blanchett and her husband, Andrew Upton. Here, an adaptation by Upton is performed by a cast that includes Blanchett as well as Hugo Weaving. The production won acclaim when it played at the Kennedy Center last August. Tickets are now on sale; but be warned that this is the kind of show that sells out.

The Lathe of Heaven (June 6–30, Untitled Theatre Company #61, 3LD): Ursula K. Le Guin, author of the SF novella about a man whose dreams can change reality, has authorized this stage adaptation by Edward Einhorn, which the UTC61 website suggests will contrast Western and Taoist themes. The novel does much the same, and Le Guin’s title nods to a Chinese Taoist who fashioned the conundrum of the butterfly dream. conundrum

Maybe we don’t need a third version, after WNET’s in 1980 and a less-successful one by A&E of 2002? Ah, but we always need reminders of the uses and abuses of power, which is one way of viewing Le Guin’s story. 6_The_Lathe_of_Heaven.html                                                           —JEB

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