Friday, June 07, 2013

Links 07/06/13

Should biohackers use Kickstarter to fund a project to create glow-in-the-dark plants?

Book-stacking, Japanese style.

Brad Goldpaint's fabulous photograph of the aurora borealis over Crater Lake, Oregon.

In Homebush Bay, just west of Sydney, a derelict ship supports a floating forest.

My Quiet War story 'Dead Men Walking' has been reprinted in Clarkesworld magazine. Read it here.

The Swarming Dead

We've had shambling zombies; we've had speedy feral zombies. Now the blockbuster film World War Z, based on the novel by Max Brooks, presents army-ant zombies laying waste to vast swathes of the planet. In this ambitious, big budget attempt to combine zombie flick tropes with a Contagion-style race-against-time search for the cure to a global plague, these undead aren't after the brains and flesh of the living: their sole purpose is to spread the disease that's transformed them, using superhuman speed and strength to chase down and bite new victims.

Unlike Contagion's slick juxtaposition of multiple viewpoints, World War Z's global disaster sticks close to its hero, UN troubleshooter Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt). When the zombie plague sweeps across the world, Lane manages to get his family to a safe berth on a fleet of ships anchored far from land, but in return must help a young scientist search for the source of the disease and a possible cure. The first half hour, with its focus on survival in a city where zombies and panicking citizens are running amok, is rather terrific, but the story quickly loses momentum as Pitt treks from place to place, brow furrowed, collecting plot coupons. There's a great cameo from David Morse as a renegade CIA agent caged in an overrun airbase for smuggling arms to North Korea (which stopped the plague spreading by defanging all of its citizens), and for a moment I hoped he'd partner up with Pitt and inject a little drama and oddball to-and-fro into the exposition, but no, Pitt is off on his solo quest again.  This time to Jerusalem, and then to a WHO health facility in Cardiff of all places, and the story's energy dissipates in a final section that appears to have been bolted on from a different film with a much lower budget, before abruptly ending.

Director Marc Forster marshals some impressive action scenes, notably zombies swarming like insects over a city's defences and a neat zombies-loose-on-a-plane bit, but these are interspersed between a great deal of solemn exposition, the global scope of the disaster is conveyed mainly by glimpses of news feeds and a single nuclear explosion, we're never really made to care about the fate of the hero's wife and kids (who are mostly written out of the second half of the film), and the PG-13 rating means that there's none of the mayhem and spatter you expect from a zombie film.  Apart from some shoot-em-up stuff, most of the action, like a post-Hayes code film, is above the waist, which leads to a risible moment as Pitt struggles to tug the business end of a crowbar from a downed zombie like a golfer lining up a difficult putt.  It's by no means the disaster that some are claiming, but despite its gloomy ambition, this hybrid fails to deliver a coherent story.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

A Little History

(In case you haven't noticed, I have a new novel coming out soon. This is a bit of background. Also, it's my 1000th entry on the blog.)

One thing that's certain about the future: it will have more history than the present. Even if every record is somehow burned or wiped, all the events between now and then will have a weight, a gravity. They'll leave their mark.  In The Quiet War, I wanted to show how history trailed into the present of its future; how it affected those who lived there. So: some of Earth's wealthiest people escape grievous climatic changes and the resulting political chaos by setting up a refuge on the Moon. Later, their descendants, and the descendants of the technicians, engineers and other servants who maintained the refuge, move further outward, to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. The resentments of those left behind on Earth, and the belief that the hard work done to rebuild shattered ecosystems lends them a moral superiority, are the tinder for a crusade against the Outers.

The Quiet War depicted the slow build-up towards outright war; the next novel, Gardens of the Sun, is about the consequences of Earth's victory. War is not a solution to a problem that can't be solved in any other way. It is not an end point; it does not reset history to a notional Year Zero. As the history of the twentieth century has shown, time and again, the violent assertion of power often causes new and unexpected problems.

The two novels follow the stories of five protagonists as they threaded through larger events; I wanted to give views from a variety of perspectives, and to show how human stories are affected by history, and how they can sometimes affect history.  In The Mouth of the Whale jumps forward 1500 years or so, and also jumps right out of the Solar System, but the colonists of the circumstellar rubble belt of Fomalhaut have not yet managed to escape history, although the stories of the three protagonists show how they try to transcend their circumstances.

And Evening's Empires, set around the time of In the Mouth of the Whale, but back in the Solar System, is the story of a single person, Gajananvihari Pilot. He has escaped the hijack of his family's ship, and although he's been stripped of everything he knows, although he's hardly ever left his ship before and knows almost nothing about the hundreds of little empires scattered across the asteroid belt, he's determined to get it back. And soon learns that his family's history is stranger than he thought, and entangled in the wider wreckage of human history.

The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun were designed as a diptych, but In the Mouth of the Whale and Evening's Empires are separate stories from the same history.  The four novels in the Quiet War universe are not episodes in an overarching story: there are connections and echoes, but no continuous narrative. But there is a theme.

Monday, June 03, 2013

The Caves Of Steel

The car ran at a leisurely fifty kilometres per hour along a track that clung to the overhead. Hari and Rav had it to themselves. They sat in the nose like kings of the world, sweeping through sector after sector, each separated from the next by a transparent bulkhead. A sea of white sand dunes. An intricate puzzle of lakes and forest. Thick, unbroken jungle. Old towns and palaces hung from the overhead; newer settlements were scattered across the floor. Banyan patches, strings of half-buried blockhouses, clumps of flimsy shacks circled by defensive walls, villages straggling around pele towers of various heights and degrees of ruin: remnants of the war games Trues had liked to play, great slaughters organised for the entertainment of jaded suzerains and optimates. One tower, at the centre of a craggy canyonland, was as big as a town, the concentric rings of defences around its base broken and pitted by the wounds of an ancient bombardment and overgrown by trees and a shawl of creepers from which a swirl of black birds rose as the car passed by high above, hurtling onwards around Ophir’s great curve, above towers and villages and towns and fields and wilderness, above woods and fields, above stretches of deadland stripped to the fullerene strands of the world-city’s rind.

All of this was contained in a habitable deck or shell fifty kilometres in diameter, wrapped around the nickel-iron keel on which Ophir had been founded. A surface area of eight thousand square kilometres. The overhead was more than a kilometre high, and there was weather beneath it. Shoals of wispy clouds; a dark rainstorm. Vast perspectives were interrupted by enormous bulkheads of diamond-fullerene composite pierced here and there by ship-sized airlocks through which rail cars and ground traffic passed.

Once, the rock at the centre of Ophir’s shell had been occupied by a single small, tented town and a scatter of vacuum-organism farms. And then the True Empire had absorbed it, and embarked on an insanely grand engineering project. Thousands of huge machines had processed primordial organic material mined from a score of comets, levelled the cratered terrain and covered it with densely woven layers of fullerene, and floated a shell a kilometre above this foundation, supported by bulkheads that divided the interior into a hundred segments, each landscaped with a different garden biome. A world-city. A monument to the Trues’ hubris.

It was the one of largest structures ever built in the Solar System, yet despite its adamantine foundations and bulkheads, and the deep layers of foamed fullerenes that formed the outer skin of its shell, it was hopelessly vulnerable. Its defence system of ablative lasers and swarms of bomblets and drones was sufficient to sweep and deflect debris from its orbital path, but offered no protection from a concerted attack.

The Trues had built Ophir as an act of ego and of defiance. To prove that they could; to prove that none of their enemies could challenge them. And their enemies had called it the City of the Caves of Steel because, like that ancient material, it was both massive and brittle. Collision with a single rock just a few tens of metres across would utterly destroy it. When the True Empire had at last fallen, the world-city had been spared only because a small majority of posthumans could not countenance the murder of several hundred thousand citizens. Five hundred years later, the descendants of those citizens were still forbidden to travel beyond the shell of the city’s overhead, and their numbers had been swollen by baseliners fleeing predatory dacoits and the capricious rule of posthuman clades. The magnificent folly of the True Empire had become a refuge and a prison.

From Evening's Empires
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