Friday, November 13, 2015


An anecdote is not necessarily a datum, and all that. So this is just an observation I found interesting. I was doing a Q&A with a university creative writing class this week, and midway through the professor asked a question of his own: how many of the students read e-books on any media, from Kindles to iPads? Out of around twenty, only three raised their hands.

The New York Times recently reported that e-book sales have fallen in the first part of this year, suggesting that the survival of printed books isn't as precarious as once thought. Certainly, those students, all of them digital natives and presumably a target audience for purveyors of e-books, prefer the printed page. It wasn't the time and place to go into any detail as to why, but for authors who, like me, are putting some or all of their back list* out as self-published e-books, it is interesting. Who is the audience? One survey suggests that e-book consumption 'seems to be a habit acquired after the age of 24.' Are we missing out on a rising generation of readers, who think that e-books are no substitute for printed books, which don't need expensive devices to read them, and can be bought cheaply secondhand?

*See the blog's sidebar for links to short stories, short story collections, and two novels that fell out of print.

Thursday, November 05, 2015


I saw a 35mm print of Tarkovsky's Stalker a few weeks ago, deep in the mazy bowels of the Barbican Centre. Based on the novella Roadside Picnic, by Boris and Arkady Strugasky, its narrative follows a stalker who guides two clients through the forbidden Zone, an area imprinted by some unspecified event, to a room that is said to grant the true desires of those who enter it. Not their spoken, conscious wishes or ambitions, but something much more dangerous: their heart's desire. It's a slow-paced meditative film that leaves the interpretation of much of its dreamlike story and images to the viewer, and like a dream its atmosphere clings to you for some while afterwards. Whenever I think of the wretched Stalker, who keeps returning to the Zone even though it has made a ruin of his life, I'm reminded of a couple of lines from T.H. White's The Once and Future King (also, amongst other things, the story of a quest): 'The miracle was that he had been allowed to do a miracle. And ever, says Mallory, Sir Lancelot wept, as he had been a child that had been beaten.'

Monday, November 02, 2015

Proof Of Life

Friday, October 30, 2015


A little over five years ago I was told that I had bowel cancer. This was in in an office half-full of broken furniture and with a view of a weedy car park, the former site of the Odeon and Paramount cinema. A conjunction of bathos and cheap symbolism that would be rightly edited out of any fiction. Five years on, the office, the building it was in, and the car park, are all gone. Erased by redevelopment. Five years on, after major surgery, seven months of chemotherapy and a small nervous collapse manifesting mostly in anxiety attacks, I'm still here. And I've just been told that my latest and hopefully last CT scan has shown no trace of the disease. Five years on, I'm not cured, because there is as yet no way of determining that a cancer patient is entirely free of cancer cells. But I am no longer in remission. I am, prosaically, inelegantly, happily, NED -- No Evidence of Disease.

For which I am of course, immensely grateful. To the NHS, and the staff of University College Hospital London, where I was treated. To my steadfast partner, and everyone who offered condolences and support. To all, again, thank you.

But after a brief surge of elation at the good news, in which, yes, the world did look more vivid and significant, as if leaving the cinema after watching a terrific and involving film, life resumes. Partly, this is because someone close to me is currently undergoing treatment for cancer. So cancer is still a very large part of my everyday life. But also because while having cancer is life-changing, no doubt, life goes on anyway. Other stuff insists on happening. The world inconsiderately does not pay full attention to you, and you are not continually bathed in the glorious light of revelation. Which is probably just as well, as it sounds awfully tiring.

But you are, of course, abruptly confronted with your own mortality, and the stark realisation that part of your body, that marvelous intricate communal cooperative which you've mostly taken for granted, has rebelled. Cells have regressed to an embryonic state. They are no longer cooperating. Instead, all they want to do is feed and divide. And given the chance, they will continue divide and spread until that marvelous cooperative collapses. They are so greedy for life that they don't care that their greed will kill you, and kill them too.

That knowledge is a continual low level dread, and the needling reminder that comes at odd moments in the day, and lies with you, unsleeping, at night: remember, you have cancer. And often it seems the other way around, a version of the old Russian joke. You don't have cancer. Cancer has you.

There are two narratives imposed on cancer patients by much of the media. There's the foot soldier in war against cancer, bravely battling the odds. And there's the stoic saint bravely facing her looming unavoidable fate. But if treating cancer is a battle, the patients aren't the foot soldiers. They're the battlefield. And while most of us would all like to aspire to the condition of sainthood, only some of us achieve it.

So, I was no foot soldier. I was a battleground. And, regrettably, I was no saint, either. I had a few low-key and somewhat sentimental and commonplace Damascene moments. I was privileged to witness the ability of my fellow patients to endure with dignity and humour (there's no darker humour than the humour of the chemo ward) the various indignities and travails of treatment. But mostly I tried to get on with my life, which meant that I continued to write books and stories and articles, travel when I could, pay the gas bills, so on, so forth. And maybe it was a selfish or unimaginative way of dealing with the situation, but hey. It mostly worked for me.

Five years on, then, I'm no longer a patient, but I am not cured. There is no cure. I am NED. I am still subject to survivorship statistics, although the odds have increased massively in my favour. Five years ago, my odds of surviving the next five years -- staying alive with or without evidence of cancer in my body -- were about 60%. Now, because most recurrences of cancer happen within five years of the original treatment, my odds of surviving the next five years are little different to those of everyone my age who hasn't had cancer.

That needling little reminder hasn't yet fallen silent. I doubt that it ever will. But it's now in the past tense. It no longer says, remember, you have cancer. It says instead remember, you had cancer. It's no longer a warning. It's a valediction.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The View From My Window Today

Low afternoon sunlight and leaf colour in London.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Upcoming, In Black And White

Two different views of life after the coming of the Jackaroo, those willfully enigmatic aliens who are here to help. Whatever that means.

First up, the paperback cover for Something Coming Through, scheduled for publication in January next year. Second, the cover for Into Everywhere, due out in March 2016. Just the draft version at the moment, but it can be found elsewhere in the internet so I thought I'd throw it up here.

More later, you bet.

Friday, October 23, 2015


In the purest kind of science fiction, the characters are in service to the story, and the story, whether it's about exploring alien megastructures (Rendezvous With Rama) or dramatising the unforgiving nature of orbital dynamics ('The Cold Equations'), is strung on a spine of actual or extrapolated science. But the pure quill of so-called hard sf quickly shades into fictions with more human concerns which respect the scientific spirit but have a focus that's elsewhere. That may be more interested in changes in society driven by science and technology, and the moral dilemmas those changes create, than in the actual science. And that in turn shades into the kind of sf in which science, or the vocabulary of science, or science's angle of attack, is used to illustrate a moral dilemma or some aspect of the human condition present in the actual world. The kind of story that has begun to dominate the Hugo Awards; the kind of story that this year's iteration of the Sad Puppy group railed against. John Cho's 'The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere', for instance, or Rachel Swirsky's 'If You were a Dinosaur, My Love'. Humanist stories that appear to be the antithesis of hard sf, yet in fact respect the scientific rational and central importance of science in our culture as much as the purest, hardest hard sf. Stories that, like hard sf stories, are informed by the time in which they were written, for although scientific verities secured by empiric evidence may be immutable, the culture of science, because it's a human construct, is not.There's no us v. them. No central core that must be defended from impure outsiders. It's a continuum.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A Thing I Should Have Mentioned Earlier...

I'm taking part in the Gollancz Festival at Waterstone's London Piccadilly branch today, along with a small horde of other authors. It's sold out, but if you're coming along don't forget to bring or buy something for me to sign.

In other news, I appear to be working on a new novel. And I've sold a Jackaroo short story, 'Something Happened Here, But We Don't Know What It Was', to It'll be published in summer next year. My short-story mojo has made a slight return. Not sure where it has been, but I'm glad that it's back and hope that it will stick around so I can do something with a few more ideas that have fallen on me in the past year. Paraphrasing John  Updike, writing short stories is like playing in the waves off a lovely beach; writing novels is like striking out across a choppy sea with no clear destination in sight.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Martian

Not so much a review as a series of thoughts, so ... mild spoiler alert.

There have been stories about astronauts stranded on Mars before, of course. Short stories by Arthur C. Clarke and Theodore Sturgeon, Rex Gordon's novel No Man Friday, and the film Robinson Crusoe on Mars have all turned on various kinds of Martian shipwreck (and one of the characters in my novel The Secret of Life refused to leave the home she'd made on Mars when offered the chance of rescue). But The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott and based on the novel by Andy Weir, brings a couple of new ideas to the game.

It's a film whose beats are snaps of inspiration and the appliance of science. Unlike Robinson Crusoe on Mars, The Martian doesn't dramatise the effects of solitude and the continual struggle for survival on its lone protagonist. Like his departed colleagues, who left him behind in the confusion of a dust storm, the stranded astronaut, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a scientist, come to Mars not to fight monsters or set up a hotdog stand or moon about ancient crystal cities, but to do science. And he goes about the business of survival in a thoroughly intelligent, rational and convincing way, confronting each problem and sciencing the shit out of it. As on Mars, so on Earth. Once they realise that Watney is alive, NASA scientists and engineers begin to devise a way to rescue him, and like him they must work with what they have, within the immovable limitations of physics and orbital mechanics. As in Apollo 13, the ticking clocks of dwindling resources and orbital windows drive the drama; unlike Apollo 13, there are few glimpses of the hinterlands or interior lives of its protagonists. Its gaze is not unsympathetic, but is cool and vast, more comfortable with technical details than messy human lives.

That same gaze pans across vast panoramas of Mars as we now know it from the camera eyes of spacecraft in orbit and rovers and robot landers. Views from high above showing Watney driving across vast desolations in a Mars buggy are resonant with the Romantic sublime: the works of man lost in the enormous emptiness of nature. There's a wonderful Martian sunset, and a nice shot showing Watney sitting on a rocky ridge and looking out across the ochre landscape: part of a short passage in which in which, in a rare moment of introspection, he reflects that everywhere he goes is new territory, his every footprint the first.

Despite the film's claim to verisimilitude, there are, inevitably, compromises made for dramatic purposes. The dust storm that kicks off the story is far more violent than any possible in Mars's thin atmosphere; Watney recovers an actual probe that landed near the landing site of his fictional expedition by digging it out of an unlikely dune, presumably deposited by similar storms. I appreciate the dramatic reason -- the excavation nicely parallels the unveiling of its Earthbound twin in a Jet Propulsion Laboratory warehouse -- but it misses an opportunity to show Watney finding it by navigating the rocky landscape where it actually landed, and which it extensively and famously imaged. Likewise, the region where he's stranded, Acidalia Planitia, contains some fantastic geology -- outflow channels where ancient floods have modified the landscape; tens of thousands of mounds that might be extinct mud volcanoes; huge boulder fields and areas of shattered blocks -- but while an actual expedition to the region would most definitely science the shit out them, they're never mentioned in the film. A pity, I think, as they could have been used to give a sense of Mars as a place with its own deep dynamic history.

But the film is after all called The Martian, not Mars. And its story of tribulation and dogged survival, of the triumph of one man's will, and of human ingenuity and cooperation, is upliftingly optimistic. No wonder, despite a subplot that depicts technicians outwitting NASA politicians, the agency has thrown its weight behind it. It not only shows us how it would be for humans to walk on Mars; it's also a hymn to the space industry's scientific and technical capability, and to the spirit of exploration.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

News From Pluto

'If an artist had painted this Pluto before our flyby, I probably would have called it over the top, but that’s what is actually there.' Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator

Monday, September 14, 2015

Hard To Be A God

Back in 1975, in a review of Thomas M. Disch's collection Getting Into Death, M. John Harrison highlighted a passage in one story, 'The Asian Shore', and excoriatingly compared its uncompromising realism with the airless constructions and frictionless problems and discourse of much contemporary SF. In the story, an American recently moved to Istanbul, haunted by an identity crisis, crosses the Bosphorus to the Asian side of the city and comes across a boy crying by a public fountain. It's winter. The boy has been sent to collect water in two buckets, but he is shod in plastic slippers with a thong that must be grasped by the first and second toes. When he tries to walk, freezing water slops onto his feet, his numb toes lose his grip, and he cannot keep his slippers on. He can't leave them behind, and he can't leave the water buckets, either. But as far as the story's non-Turkish-speaking protagonist is concerned, the worst of it is the horror of his own helplessness:
He could not go up to the boy and ask him where he lived, lift him and carry him -- he was so small -- to his home. Nor could he scold the child's parents for having sent him out on this errand without proper shoes or winter clothes. He could not even take up the buckets and have the child lead him to his home. For each of these possibilities demanded that he be able to speak to the boy, and this he could not do.

Harrison's explication of that passage made a huge impression on me at the time; as far as I was concerned, it epitomised the division between genre science fiction and the ambitions of the New Wave. And I was strongly reminded of it while watching Aleksei German's film Hard To Be a God, just released on Blu-ray in the UK.

An adaptation of Arkady and Bros Strugatsky's science fiction novel, it's an epic drama the director planned over four decades, spent a dozen years making, and did not live to complete  -- the final post-production work was carried out by by his widow and his son. Filmed in black and white, it's set on an alien planet whose people and history are much like our own, except that its nascent Renaissance has been snuffed out by the persecution of intellectuals and artists by a violent sect, the Greys. Its inhabitants are imprisoned by squalor, violence and meaningless ritual. Crumbling buildings are swept by seething rain or muffled by fog, and mired in glutinous lakes of mud and shit through which everyone must struggle on their daily rounds.

The film's densely imagined, claustrophobic world is depicted in crowded, busy scenes that deliberately echo the paintings of Breugel pere and fils, and Heironymus Bosch (many of the extras were chosen for their resemblance to characters in their work), and the restless camera not only immerses the viewer in the action but also becomes a character in the film. Passers-by often turn to address it with complaints or knowing looks; it roves with a kind of avid detachment over faces and animals, corpses and atrocities, peers under tables or into corners of rooms while elsewhere something else is always going on. Passages are reminiscent of the films of Terry Gilliam (especially Jabberwocky), Sergei Eistenstein's Ivan the Terrible, and Elim Klimov's World War 2 masterpiece Come and See, but the sheer density of its world-building and its unblinking documentation of human folly and degradation are arresting, exhausting, and wholly unique.

This universal misery is watched and recorded by a small group of anthropologists from Earth. The film's narrative, recounted in elliptical episodes, centers on one of them, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), who masquerades as a swordfighter descended from a local god. We are never shown the spaceship that brought him and his colleagues to this backward world, but he wears a crystal camera eye, his sword can effortlessly cut through armour, he plays jazz on a complicated clarinet, and affects an ironic detachment. He cuts off the ears of his enemies rather than killing them, and insists on a plentiful supply of hot water and white linen to set himself apart from the grimy, stinking locals, but gradually becomes mired in a struggle between the Greys and a rival sect, and an intricate sequence of betrayals. He wants to do good, but doesn't know how. He wants to stay aloof, but is forced to take violent action to defend himself. And it slowly becomes clear that his seprior powers can have no effect on the dead-end of the planet's civilisation: remove the Greys, and another sect will take its place; kill all the noblemen, and others equally violent and corrupt will take their place.

The parallels between the fantastical world of this compassionate, compelling, witty, intelligent film and our own are obvious; the contrast with much contemporary science fiction, with its super heroes, worlds designed to reward their protagonists, and simplistic morality plays, is as strong as it was forty years ago.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Cover Reveal

Monday, September 07, 2015

Science Friction

In the early 1970s, Samuel R. Delany and his ex-wife Marilyn Hacker edited four volumes of a little magazine, Quark. Original short stories and poetry. Speculative fiction. New Wave experiments in inner space. Stories by Thomas M. Disch, John Sladek, Joanna Russ, M John Harrison, Kate Wilhelm. An early piece by Christopher Priest. Cool stuff, and a nice little cross-section of science fiction at a certain node in its history. I have the first two volumes, and after a few years of failing to spot the other two at dealers' tables at SF conventions (not that I was looking very hard), I took the search online. A book dealer in New Jersey had a nice copy of Quark 3 at a keen price. I ordered and paid for it, he packaged and dispatched it . . . and somewhere between New Jersey and London, it went astray.

Translating an impulse into an order on some merchant's web page and arranging the paperless transfer of credit is largely friction free, apart from the mediation of touch pad or keyboard. But pressing the virtual BUY button sets in train a hugely complex set of processes in the physical world, involving two different postal services and two sets of customs, at least one air freight company and one of its planes and the plane's crew, a trans-Atlantic flight, various air traffic control systems, two airports . . . The kind of stuff glimpsed at the edges of the narrative of Castaway; the infrastructure hymned in John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay's Aerotropolis. We think about it when we shop online about as much as we think of abattoirs when we order a hamburger, which is to say hardly at all. Until something goes wrong, and the friction of actual things moving through the actual world makes itself known. And something did go wrong, in transit, with the copy of Quark 3 I ordered. I never did get the book, but because the transport system tracks objects via their unique codes I was able to find out that that it reached my local sorting office, which tried twice to deliver it . . . to a house number one digit different to mine.

It's a very twenty-first century experience, this kind of futile omnipotence: you can see where things went wrong, but only when it's too late to do anything about it. You have the information, but you can't use it to solve the problem because although the system allows you to be an observer, it doesn't allow you to be an agent. I know, because the bookseller kept a scan of the postage label, that the address was correct when he consigned the book to the maw of the machine. And I know that somewhere, somehow, the address changed. Perhaps either US or UK customs opened the package to check it, and slapped on a new label with a miskeyed address. Perhaps the label was subtly damaged, a smudge or rip changing the last digit of the house number from 8 to 9. Maybe, like the fly that falls into a teletype printer at the beginning of Brazil, and changes the name Tuttle to Buttle, there was an actual bug in the machine. In any case, no one was in on the two occasions, two weeks apart, when the postman tried to deliver the book to the wrong address. While-you-were-out cards were left, addressed to me; presumably, the home owner shrugged and threw them away. And when no one came to collect the book after the second delivery attempt, the sorting office sent it off to the depot that handles international mail, so that it could be returned to sender.

I know the dates of the attempted deliveries, and the date of return, but after that the trail goes cold. A month has passed. The book hasn't yet come back to the bookseller. I hope it does. It was - I hope it still is - a nice clean copy of a paperback more than forty years old. I wouldn't like to think that my stupid impulse to buy it consigned it like some hapless hero to a journey with no clear destination or way back; that the frictionless scratch of a little itch of desire, a momentary impulse that crossed the Atlantic at the speed of electricity, has been the undoing of a fragile innocent little memento of history and imagination.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Status Update

I've now consigned the much-scribbled-on copy-edited manuscript of Into Everywhere to my long-suffering editor. Into his actual hands, after I tramped through London's implacable August weather, enough rain that it was as if the waters of a new creation &tc, to Gollancz's new offices. Where I was told, at the front desk, that they don't accept packages, presumably because it's the twenty-first century, and it's all infopipes now. But however you deliver it, there's always a feeling that you haven't finished the novel so much as abandoned it -- even though you know that there comes a point where actual improvement gives way to mere tinkering, it's hard to tell, when you've been working on something so closely for so long, where that point actually is. Next up, in the march from vague notion to thingnicity: proofs and cover art. I've seen a cover rough already, and it looks rather good.

Meanwhile, I've sold two stories, one of which, will be my hundredth in print, more or less.* One, 'Rats Dream of the Future', to Asimov's Science Fiction; the other, 'Elves of Antarctica' to an anthology of original stories about climate change, Drowned Worlds, Wild Shores, edited by Jonathan Strahan. Not so much science fiction that last; not any more.

*because amongst other things I'm counting two collaborations with Kim Newman

Friday, August 21, 2015

So Long, Dione

Although it was fairly flat compared to Iapetus, and lacked impressively large features like Tethys’s Ithica Chasma, or Rhea’s two great multi-ringed impact basins, Dione’s moonscapes were nevertheless highly differentiated. Satellite surveys and a century of exploration had not yet exhausted them; gypsy prospectors like Karyl could make a living from searching out volcanic deposits of phosphates and nitrates and sulphates, veins of breciated carbonaceous chondrite material from cometary impacts, and the remains of stony or iron meteorites.
It was a lonely life, sure, and often frustrating, with long dry spells when strike after strike uncovered nothing useful. But like all gamblers, the occasional reward drove him ever onward across Dione’s cratered plains and smooth plains, through the troughs and labyrinthine badlands. Sometimes, especially late in the afternoon, with low sunlight mingling with Saturn’s pastel glow and the moonscape curving away on every side glowing like beaten bronze and everything casting two shadows, one short and one long, like the hands of an old-fashioned clock, Karyl’s heart lifted and turned on a flood of happiness, as if he was the emperor of all he surveyed, the only witness to Dione’s pure, bleak, uncanny beauty.

Words from 'Karyl's War', Stories From The Quiet War.
Images from Cassini's last close encounter with Saturn's moon Dione, August 17, 2015. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Confluence Paperback

Published today: the hefty paperback edition of the reissued omnibus of the Confluence trilogy. Three novels and two related stories; 935 pages. As it says on the back:
Confluence - a long, narrow, man-made world, half fertile river valley, half crater-strewn desert. A world served by countless machines, inhabited by by ten thousand bloodlines who worship their absent creators.

This is the home of Yama, destined to become a clerk until the discovery of his singular ancestry. For Yama appears to be the last remaining sion of the Builders, able to control the secret machineries of the world.

Pursued by enemies who want to make use of his powers, Yama voyages down the length of the world to search for answers to the mysteries of his origin, and discover if he is to be its saviour, or its nemesis.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Two Men Looking For U.N.C.L.E.

Another day, another film that's the origin story of an old franchise rebooted for a new generation. But unlike Fantastic Four, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is an action film that instead of footling around with the laborious construction of a Macguffin delivers what's expected of it from the outset. In Cold War Berlin (Kennedy's 'Ich bin ein Berliner' speech is on the TV, so it's 1963), CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) duel over East German car mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), daughter of a missing atomic scientist (Udo, not the actual atomic scientist Edward). But when their bosses realise that Gaby's father is building a nuclear weapon for a gang of fascists, Solo and Kuryakin are forced to work together, helping Gaby to find her father and infiltrate the fascist organisation.

The story is a nod to the central trope of the TV series, where innocents routinely became entangled with Solo and Kuryakin's espionage underworld. The odd-couple pairing between suave former art thief Solo, and Kuryakin, a by-the-rule-book strongman with severe anger management issues, is enlivened Gaby's presence - from the outset it's made clear that she has her own particular skill-set, and she gets the best of Kuryakin in their flirtatious exchanges. Elizabeth Debicki is a fine villain, by turns smouldering and icy, the mostly Italian settings burst with sumptuous colour, the costumes are achingly stylish, the soundtrack is punchy, and Guy Ritchie directs the action setpieces with the style he honed on his two Sherlock Holmes films. It's very much an homage to period action films rather than a knowing pastiche.

It's unfortunate, then, that the chemistry between the two male leads doesn't quite gel. Exchanges meant to be snappy too often fall flat; Cavill's Solo is a little too ponderous (and his American drawl is startlingly similar to Christian Bale's in American Psycho - I kept expecting him to break into a short disquisition about the merits of Burt Bacharach). Hugh Grant, as a deceptively bumbling British spy chief, gets the better of both of male leads; Alicia Vikander's nimble and witty turn as Gaby outclasses them all. And because the film concentrates on how Solo and Kuryakin met and why U.N.C.L.E. was set up, the actual plot, with its chases and confrontations with playboy villains, ex-Nazis, double agents and atomic weaponry, is somewhat exiguous and implausible. It's understandable, I guess, that the setup of a fifty-year-old TV series needs to be explained to its young core audience (the film also gives a quick, clever reprise of the basics of the Cold War in its opening credits, and later illustrates the essentials of the Second World War - Adolph Hitler had a hand in it, apparently), but it's something that the original The Man From U.N.C.L.E. neither bothered with nor needed. An entertaining caper, lovely to look at, but one that left me wishing that it had spent more time on plot than setup, and found a better balance of substance and style.

Monday, August 10, 2015

New York, New York

Friday, August 07, 2015

Fantastic Four

I didn't have any great expectations when I saw a preview showing of Fantastic Four a couple of days ago, so at least I wasn't disappointed. A reboot of the 2005 film, apparently made so that Fox could hang on to the franchise, it makes some radical changes to the origin story of Marvel's first superhero team: Reed Richards, supergenius elastic man; Sue Storm, with the ability to become invisible and generate force fields; Johnny Storm, human torch; Ben Grimm, stone-clad golem. But none of the changes are improvements, and the film fails to weld together three different narrative sections into a coherent whole. It starts with a slice of Spielbergian wonder as schoolboy Reed hooks up with Ben while searching for an essential component for his teleportation device; then jumps forward a few years when Reed is recruited to a hothouse academy and falls for Sue Storm; and finally takes a turn into grimdark territory after the teleporter accesses the weird energies of an alter Earth, and transforms the four heroes and the villain (as in the comics, helpfully called Victor Von Doom).

The major problem is that this version of the Fantastic Four's origin story isn't as much fun as the original, in which Reed developed an interstellar spaceship that ran into trouble as soon as it left Earth, exposing Reed, Ben Grimm (who was piloting it) and Reed's fiance Sue and her brother Johnny to the radiation of the Van Allen belts. The 2005 film was a variation on this - exposure to cosmic radiation on Reed's privately-owned space station. In both, Reed's wealth gave them independence and allowed them to become celebrity heroes: having superpowers could be troublesome (especially for Ben Grimm, with the world's worst skin problem), and the four squabbled and fell out in the way all families do, but on the whole being one of the team was pretty swell.

Not so much in the new version (and here, I guess, mild SPOILERS), where the transformation doesn't happen until more than halfway through the film, and the four nascent superheroes become pawns of the military-industrial complex. Despite the lead actors' best efforts to breathe life into their characters, it's a disjointed mess, focusing on construction of the plot MacGuffin and gloomy moral quandaries at the expense of the bits where the superheroes strut their stuff and the crucial annealing of the four as a team. If only it would put an end to the formulaic origin story - hero gets power, fights villain they've accidentally created, establishes franchise identity - repeated across original film treatments and reboots. But it probably won't even succeed in that.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Comet Dirt

Credits: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/ROLIS/DLR

It looks, someone responded when I posted the above to Twitter, like my back yard. It's actually the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, taken from a distance of nine metres by the Philae lander, at the very end of its descent after being released by the Rosetta comet chaser. The lander failed to anchor itself and in the comet's feeble gravity bounced off the surface several times, ending up wedged in the shadow of a low cliff. Without enough sunlight falling on its solar panels the little lander went into sleep mode after its battery power ran down, but recently woke again because the intensity of sunlight has increased as the comet makes its closest approach to the sun. A short while ago it transmitted a fat batch of data, just published, including that close-up of its first, very temporary landing site. Which does, yes, look like a patch of garden dirt. Or maybe the hardcore of a building-site car park. Or the surface of Mars, or of the Moon. Which either suggests (if you hate the idea of space exploration) that travel to other planets is a waste of time, or (if, like me, you geek out on planetary science) says something interesting about the universality of dirt. That there are similar geological processes on comets and planets that grind bedrock fine, and with the aid of gravity and wind (or the eruptive jets of comets) distribute the material in a more or less even blanket. That a comet isn't a simple ball of ice, but possesses dirt and boulders, cliffs with mass-wasted talus slopes, and even what look like rippled dunes.

But even outwith the fact that it's part of the rind of a comet, the dirt in the image isn't ordinary dirt, of course. It's mostly water ice. Pebbles and shards and grains of water ice frozen hard as rock, leavened with carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide ices, and tainted with a variety of toxic chemicals - hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, sulphur dioxide, carbon disulphide, formaldehyde, methyl isocyanate, acetone, propionaldehyde, acetamide . . . 'If you could smell the comet, you would probably wish that you hadn't,' as one of the Rosetta team wrote in the project's blog. But in that poisonous cocktail are compounds that probably played key roles in Earth's ancient prebiotic chemistry. You couldn't grow flowers in comet dirt (although if you were one of the Quiet War's Outers, you might seed a comet like this with vacuum organisms that would mine useful organics), yet it contains the stuff of life: stuff that may have seeded the Earth with necessary precursors. That patch of comet dirt is a reminder of where we came from.
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