Science Fiction

China Mieville’s The City and The City Coming to BBC

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 18/03/2018 - 6:33am in

Yesterday I caught a very brief trailer for what looks like a forthcoming Beeb adaptation of China Mieville’s The City and The City. This is a murder mystery set in a fictional eastern European country, and the Amazon review of it declares that stylistically it resembles Raymond Chandler and Orwell’s 1984, amongst other classic authors. Mieville’s an SF author, so it’s no surprise that this not going to be a straightforward thriller, but involves weirdness.

I’ve got a feeling that the book won at least one SF fiction award, though I could be wrong. Mieville himself is actually very left. He edited a book on Marxism and Science Fiction, which I found in the Cheltenham branch of Waterstone’s a couple of years ago. He and the late, great Ian M. Banks also gave a very interesting interview to the small press SF/genre fiction magazine The Edge back in the 1990s, where they made it very plain that they disliked the Tories and had absolute contempt for New Labour for their cuts to the welfare state.

Some of the attempts the Beeb has made in recent years to do proper SF or Fantasy dramas have been rather disappointing. But this could be worth watching.


Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 13/03/2018 - 8:18pm in

Belle and I are watching Annihilation on Netflix. We are about 50 minutes in. This just makes no sense. These people. But maybe it’s worth watching until the end? What do you think?

Take my survey!

Or leave a comment.

(I understand the book was better.)

UPDATE: the Plain People of the Internet have spoken. I guess we’ll watch the rest a bit later. (We did other stuff last night.) The main problem with the film, in a nutshell, is that you have a small group of scientists going into this mysterious area, the Shimmer. Everything they know indicates that their safety measures are ludicrously insufficient. They aren’t wearing hazmat suits even though they have every reason to expect radiation or poisonous atmosphere or environment. They are not soldiers, but they are armed. They are all neurotic loners (who else would volunteer for this mission? But there’s limits to the ‘send in people who don’t have a lot of close family’ strategy.) The result is that their actions and reactions, in the Shimmer, aren’t interesting, since they consistently mismatch the situation. There’s a fine line between surreal and stupid, and the film is not managing to keep its small team of scientists on the former side of the divide, in this weird place.

Should I watch Annihilation?

RT Reports on People Attacking Robots and Driverless Cars in California

This is a very short video – about 2 1/2 minutes long – I found over on YouTube by RT. It reports attacks on driverless cars and other robots by the good folks of California. The other robots attacked include a robot guard, designed to shoo the homeless away from business entrances, which was put out of action several times, and a robot burger chef. The machine is basically just an arm and hand, which is shown flipping burgers, and laying them out ready for the bun. The attacks on this machine have included comments about it taking people’s jobs.

The piece cuts to an expert, who says that when you have predictions that mechanisation will destroy half the jobs in America, which will cause massive social dislocation – people are going to be angry. He then makes the anodyne statement that they have to find ways to make automation work for the benefit of everyone.

There is no way under capitalism that automation will work for everyone. Value under capitalism is determined by scarcity. The scarcer and more vital a product or service is, the more people are willing to pay for it. Hence the neoliberal dictum that there must be a ‘reserve army of the unemployed’ to bring down wages, whatever George Osborne and the other liars in the Tory party say about reducing unemployment. Making half the workforce unemployed will create immense poverty, but I can see the Tories and their backers salivating over that, as it means jobs will become more precious, and the working and lower middle class more dispirited and willing to put up with even worse condition to get them.

Of course, one solution would be to nationalise the companies not using a given proportion of human labour, so that their profits could be used to benefit everyone, perhaps through a universal citizen wage. The Polish SF author, Stanislaw Lem, mentioned this option in one of his short stories in Tales of Pirx the Pilot. But there’s no way this is going to happen, as the Tories and other apologists for capitalism will scream blue murder about the sanctity of private industry. Even when that industry is destroying jobs for private profit.

There needs to be a complete change in the structure of our society, if such widespread automation goes ahead. And it should begin by kicking out the Tories and the other corporatist politicos.

Crowley On Ancient Blurb Technology and Le Guin

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 08/03/2018 - 11:58am in

I was most gratified when John Crowley showed up – easy as pie – in comments to my “Omelas” post. I will try to repay the compliment of this gesture (nigh-effortless to its author!) by linking to his new Boston Review piece, reminiscing on Le Guin and blurb technology of yore.

In 1973, when I finished my first novel, the difficulties of the blurb-solicitation process were enormous, or would surely seem so to writers now who send digital files effortlessly to famous people through websites and email. The great new advance then was the Xerox machine; you at least didn’t have to produce carbons (hopeless) or photostats (expensive) to send out. But still, as often as not—or more often than not—your solicitations weren’t responded to, which could seem like a foretaste of failure: perhaps readers wouldn’t respond either. Now and then a query would get a curt reply asking that the manuscript not be sent, that the recipient didn’t read such submissions.

For my first novel, I received a hand-written postcard from Ursula K. Le Guin welcoming me to the fold.

I once sent a large manuscript to Anne Rice, the vampire biographer­. What I got back was a postcard, filled edge to edge with typing, asking why I felt I had a right to send her this mass of paper, did I really think she had any reason to read it—she did not—and what was she supposed to do with it? I thought of writing her back to say that she might just toss it in the trash with the rest of the week’s paper, but I didn’t.

Then again, just imagine how hard it must have been even earlier. You are the author of Gilgamesh, say. You’ve cuneiformed it all on tablets. And you want to get copies made and sent out, for blurbing. It really puts the ‘chiropractical’ into the practical challenges of epigraphy, toting a camel-load of your new novel around the Mediterranean for months – maybe years – and then getting an angry rejection by some Sumerian Anne Rice.

And there aren’t even any Anne Rices, let alone Le Guins. You’re it. You’re first. It’s a paradox.

Galactic Poetry Sunday

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 04/03/2018 - 3:33pm in

Having taken some notes on ‘alien‘, let me make some on ‘galaxy’, which has had a longer shelf-life than you might think in English poetry.

Se yonder loo the Galoxie
Whiche men clepeth the melky weye
For hit ys white.

That’s Chaucer. It sounds incongruously scientific, doesn’t it? That’s us projecting our scientific sense back into a Greek name for that whitish light-y bit up there.

Our concept of galaxy needs telescopes. Galileo is first to see the Milky Way is made up of stars (1610) – although Democritus guessed it long ago. In 1750 Thomas Wright first theorizes the gravitational structure of the galaxy (and Kant thinks he was right.) The astronomer Herschel is first to star-map the shape of the Milky Way (1785).

You might think poetry and SF don’t go together especially. As Coleridge says: “There can be no galaxy in poetry.” (But he just meant you shouldn’t cram too many bright things close together – too many figures and metaphors and such. Don’t get fancy, eh!)

But galactic poetry, even in our post-Galilean sense, comes early.

A star thought by the erring passenger,
Which falling from its native orb dropped here,
And makes the earth (its centre) now its sphere.

Should many of these sparks together be,
He that the unknown light far off should see
Would think it a terrestrial galaxy.

That’s “The Glow-Worm”, by Thomas Stanley. I presume it appears in his 1649 Poems. Late Metaphysical Poetry, then, but pretty quick off the mark, poetizing cutting edge observational science.

OK, I’ll give you the full poem under the fold. It’s kind of a cheat quoting these stanzas in isolation because ‘star thought’ shouts out pretty cosmic, starting us out like that. (I thought I was clever to note this, but the editor of this standard anthology did, too. So I’m not such a special snowflake, after all.) In context, what is happening is that a glow-worm looks like a fallen star to an erring passenger (on the earth?)

Here it is:

Stay, fairest Chariessa, stay and mark
This animated gem, whose fainter spark
Of fading light its birth had from the dark;

A star thought by the erring passenger,
Which falling from its native orb dropped here,
And makes the earth (its centre) now its sphere.

Should many of these sparks together be,
He that the unknown light far off should see
Would think it a terrestrial galaxy.

Take’t up, fair saint; see how it mocks thy fright,
The paler flame doth not yield heat, though light,
Which thus deceives thy reason, through thy sight.

But see how quickly it (ta’en up) doth fade;
To shine in darkness only being made,
By th’ brightness of thy light turned to a shade;

And burnt to ashes by thy flaming eyes
On the chaste altar of thy hand it dies,
As to thy greater light a sacrifice.

I can’t claim to know who Chariessa is. Wikipedia says: beetle? (But not a glow-worm?) Who’s the saint? St. Chariessa? Who’s that? Am I being dumb?

The first poetic reference to a star-map of the galaxy is actually earlier than Herschel. It’s in Dryden, writing about Cromwell (1659):

He fought secure of fortune as of fame
Till by new maps the Island might be shown,
Of Conquests which he strew’d where ‘e’re he came
Thick as the Galaxy with starr’s is sown.

It’s quite common to meet with stars and moons and suns and orbs and so forth in poetry. Still, Galaxy feels too modern – too SF – for Dryden, to me, but there it is.

If you like your galactic poetry galumphing, there’s always “The Lady of Shallot”:

The gemmy bridle glittered free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.

If you think it’s best to keep on using Galaxy as a proper name for the Milky Way, Keats might be your man. Here he describes a swan:

He slants his neck beneath the waters bright
So silently, it seems a beam of light
Come from the galaxy:

And here:

The good-night blush of eve was waning slow,
And Vesper, risen star, began to throe
In the dusk heavens silverly, when they
Thus sprang direct towards the Galaxy.

Ultimate Egoists – Is There A Solipsist In The House?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 02/03/2018 - 5:05pm in

I’m going to try a series of posts in which I crowdsource, if I can, SF stories on highly specific philosophical themes. It seems appropriate that the first thing I should ask a crowd is: how many of you are solipsists? Which ones?

The SFE doesn’t have an entry on the subject. Seems worth drafting one.

I’m not looking for virtual reality Time Out of Joint, Truman Show stuff, although I guess I wouldn’t turn my nose up at it: stuff in which the theme is that only one person – the protagonist – matters. The world is focused on just this one soul.

There are also stories in which the continued existence of the whole universe depends on one person’s prolonged life, even if there are others in the universe. Sure, gimme that.

But gimme the hard stuff. True solipsism. The accidental god theme. I’m the only one! I made this! I’m in charge of the place. Or: I’m the only one in the place (and there is no sign of anyone outside the place.)

I’ll start us out. Theodore Sturgeon, “The Ultimate Egoist”, available inexpensively in an anthology of the same name [amazon]. Yep, that fits.

Heinlein “’All you zombies’-”

Fredric Brown, “The Solipsist” [not very good, and not quite about solipsism, but short].

OK, I’ll accept stories in which there are fewer people than it looks, maybe not just one. Heinlein’s “They”, then. The thing is: a lot of these stories are ‘pocket universe’ stories, which is sort of its own thing. So don’t just gimme a pocket universe! I got a pocketful already. (Or I’ll make a post later if I want one.)

Gimme what you got! Solipsists of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but … oh, never mind.

Coleridge Notes – Plants vs. Aliens; Signal vs. Noise; Pedlary and Motly

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 01/03/2018 - 5:19pm in

I’m doing a lot of SF research these days. Specifically, I’m reading (takes a breath): The statesman’s manual: or, The Bible the best guide to political skill and foresight: a lay sermon, addressed to the higher classes of society, with an appendix, containing comments and essays connected with the study of the inspired writings, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1816).

It’s not really about science fiction. It’s best known, I guess, for Coleridge’s well-known distinction between allegory and symbol, drawn in these pages. But it’s fun! Remember when I had the great idea of reading all the Silmarillion in the voice of Lumpy Space Princess? Well, I would get behind a Kickstarter to record all of the Statesman in the voice of Monty Burns:

Yet this again – yet even Religion itself, if ever in its too exclusive devotion to the specific and individual it neglects to interpose the contemplation of the universal, changes its being into Superstition, and becoming more and more earthly and servile, as more and more estranged from the one in all, goes wandering at length with its pack of amulets, bead-rolls, periapts, fetisches, and the like pedlary, on pilgrimages to Loretto, Mecca, or the temple of Jaggernaut, arm in arm with sensuality on one side and self-torture on the other, followed by a motly group of friars, pardoners, faquirs, gamesters, flagellants, mountebanks, and harlots.

So where’s the science fiction?

Well, there’s plants. Coleridge gets very excited about plants. He wants to be a plant when he grows up.

And aliens. He’s got plants and aliens.

O!-if as the plant to the orient beam, we would but open out our minds to that holier light, which ‘being compared with light is found before it, more beautiful than the sun, and above all the order of stars,’ (Wisdom of Solomon, vii. 29.) ungenial, alien, and adverse to our very nature would appear the boastful wisdom which, beginning in France, gradually tampered with the taste and literature of all the most civilized nations of Christendom, seducing the understanding from its natural allegiance, and therewith from all its own lawful claims, titles, and privileges.

I know, I know, just a coincidence that ‘stars’ and ‘alien’ are close together like that. But he rattles on about the excessive rationality of the French. So I think maybe this is the first triple conjunction, in English, of ‘stars’ ‘alien’ and ‘too rational for their own good’? Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic and all.

Coleridge likes ‘alien’, also ‘alienation’. Cognates occur frequently. I’m writing a bit about Utility Monsters (and Omelas), as well you know. So I thought this might be a good epigraph, from “The Night-Scene”:

Ah! was that bliss
Feared as an alien, and too vast for man?

I pointed out, during our Ada Palmer event, that Carlyle is first (1820) with ‘alien from another planet’. (I got that factoid from Brave New Words [amazon].) Alien, in a political or social relation sense; alienation of property – selling, in the legal sense; these are much older usages than the early 19th Century. But alienation in the psychological sense is only just coming as a primary sense, I think. ‘Alienist’, for example. Correct me if I’m wrong. In Robert Burns you get ‘parreck’, which means: “to force a ewe to Mother an alien lamb by closing them up together” (thanks, OED.) To us ‘alien lamb’ sounds like some weird Midwich Cuckoos scenario. There is no connotation of weirdness to Burns, obviously. It just means ‘unrelated’.

On the other hand, ‘alienation’ as a metaphor for a spiritual condition is attested by this point, but not widely. For example, OED gives a (1561) translation from Calvin: “As the spirituall life of Adam was, to abide ioyned and bounde to his creatour, so his alienation from him was the death of his soule.” Obviously separation from God is fallen-ness, spiritually. ‘Fallen’ itself is just a spatial separation metaphor.

Coleridge has ‘alien’ and ‘alienation’ metaphors and ideas and uses all over.

“Or worse than foe, an alienated friend”

I searched a complete works and came up with 88 occurrences.

There’s an ‘alien’ in that weird thing, Coleridge’s “Limbo“. He’s imagining the nothings of Limbo confronted by Something. Then these limbo dwellers are compared to moles, like something out of Kafka’s “Burrow”:

“—They shrink in, as Moles
(Nature’s mute monks, live mandrakes of the ground)
Creep back from Light — then listen for its sound: —
See but to dread, and dread they know not why —
The natural alien of their negative eye.”

That’s heavy, man! “Limbo” is nuts.

To close things out, here is Coleridge on signal vs. noise, in punditry.

Do you hold it a requisite of your rank to shew yourselves inquisitive concerning the expectations and plans of statesmen and state-counsellors? Do you excuse it as natural curiosity, that you lend a listening ear to the guesses of state-gazers, to the dark hints and open revilings of our self-inspired state fortune-tellers, ‘the wizards, that peep and mutter’ and forecast, alarmists by trade, and malcontents for their bread? And should you not feel a deeper interest in predictions which are permanent prophecies, because they are at the same time eternal truths? Predictions which in containing the grounds of fulfilment involve the principles of foresight, and teach the science of the future in its perpetual elements?

He’s not exactly Nate Silver, though. His idea is that you should read the newspaper through the lens of the Old and New Testament. A prescription subject to doubt, as methods for avoiding alarmism go.

I guess that’s not that much SF. Sorry. But that’s why I’m reading Coleridge. I’m looking for SF stuff.

Radio 4 Programme on Douglas Adams, and New Series of Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 28/02/2018 - 5:35am in

This Saturday, 3rd March 2018, Radio 4 are broadcasting a programme on Douglas Adams and his ideas for the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, based on papers at Cambridge University. The programme’s part of their Archive Hour series, at 8.00 O’clock in the evening. The blurb for it on page 119 of the Radio Times reads

John Lloyd explores a collection of Douglas Adams’ private papers written as the latter’s ideas for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy took shape.

There’s a bit more about the programme on the previous page, 118, which runs

Don’t Panic! It’s the Douglas Adams Papers

As part of the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the first broadcast on Radio 4 of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a new series begins on Radio 4 on Thursday. It includes unused material held at Cambridge University by author Douglas Adams, and Adams’ papers are the basis of his friend and collaborator John Lloyd’s tribute this evening. The tribute inevitably hinges on Adams’ famous inability to write. He “got stuck”. But the results of his anguish impressed such fans as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, both of whom appear. A priceless homage to a comedy genius.

And there’s a two-page feature on him on pages 114 & 115.

The new series of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is on Radio 4 at 6.30, on Thursday 8th March. The new series’ entitled The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Hexagonal Phase, and the listing for it in the Radio Times runs

Simon Jones returns as Arthur Dent in a new sci-fi comedy tale based on Dirk Maggs’ novel And Another Thing, with additional material by creator Douglas Adams. It sees Arthur and the rest in an adventure involving Viking Gods and Irish confidence tricksters-not to mention the first glimpse of the Eccentrica Gallumbits.

I don’t think I’ll be listening to it, as I went off Hitchhiker and Adams way back in the 1990s. I loved the first two books, but their quality steadily went down, and I’ve had no desire to read the Dirk Gently stories or anything else Adams’ wrote. And I also wasn’t impressed by the way Adams got very sniffy in an interview on the radio with Paxman, when Paxo told him he wrote science fiction, ‘but it was good’, and Adams denied that he did. Hitchhiker clearly is SF, but it seems Adams either didn’t respect the genre due to literary snobbishness, or simply didn’t want to be pigeonholed as an SF writer. I can also remember him on another radio programme back in the 1990s telling an audience of schoolchildren that he was a ‘wordsmith’. I’m sure that’s true, in the sense that Adams was genuinely concerned with making sure his work was exactly right, but it still sounds more than a little pretentious and conceited when the uses the term to describe himself.

Woohoo! Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams Is Coming Back!

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 25/02/2018 - 2:59am in

More good news for fans of mature SF. The bad news is that the new set of programmes, which continue from last year, is on Channel 4 at 10 O’clock in the evening, bang opposite the X-Files, which is on channel at the same time. Grrr! Better set your videos, peeps.

The new set of programmes begins with ‘The Father Thing’. The blurb for this on page 67 of the Radio Times runs

The sci-fi anthology series inspired by Philip K. Dick’s short stories returns. In this episode, the world is under attack as aliens quietly invade people’s homes young hero Charlie must make difficult decisions to protect his mother on the human race.

Another small article about it on page 65 states

The sci-fi anthology returns with a version of Philip K. Dick’s The Father Thing. That was published in 1954, the same year as the serialisation of the novel that inspired the movie version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers-and it you’ve seen that, or just know the premise of it, you can skip this.

Jack Gore and Greg Kinnear are both excellent as ayoung boy and his dad, shadowed by the threat of marital strife until the kid starts to have more serious concerns.

A possible theme about children fearing the loss of a divorcing parent never coalesces. Instead, as the boy’s mates get involved, we veer into a half-cocked Stranger Things homage. A well-performed, nicle shot dud.

I’ve noticed that one of the perennial themes in Dick’s work is that the hero is always in a rocky marriage, and the wife, or one of the female characters, is always bitch queen from hell, to use the words of Arnie Rimmer. Dick’s was married several times, but he comes across as something of a misgynist.

Despite the Radio Time’s critic’s sniffs, The Father Thing is one of the pieces that’s been republished recently, and I look forward to seeing it. But we’ll decide whether it’s a dud or not, thank you.

Trump Wants to Arm Teachers: This is Joke from the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 25/02/2018 - 12:49am in

Trump is apparently serious about arming teachers to protect them from another school shooting. The best solution obviously would be to restrict firearm ownership, so that people couldn’t get their mitts on powerful submachine guns, especially not criminals and murderous nutters. As for teachers with guns, I’m reminded of the Boomtown Rats old hit, ‘Tell Me Why I Don’t Like Mondays’. It was based on a real incident, where a teacher came in and shot down her class. When she was asked by the police why she did it, she simply replied ‘I don’t like Mondays’.

In fact, Douglas Adams was making jokes about arming teachers with guns as long ago as the 1980s, in the third book of his Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. I’m afraid it’s so long ago since I read it, that I can’t remember what it was called. But I do remember it involved Ford and Arthur going off to investigate the re-emergence of a savagely xenophobic and militaristic race, the Armourfiends of somewhere-or-other – I’ve forgotten the rest of their name. These people are so mad keen on war and weaponry, that certain professions are armed because of their work. This includes teachers.

What started as a joke by Adams’ is now being promoted as serious government policy by Trump. Somewhere up there, Adams must be having a very dry, ironic laugh. Always supposing that heaven exists, and the Good Lord will let militant atheists in.