Heroes Hits the UK

Two contrasting views in the Times, keeping up the standard we expect. Caitlin Moran is (slightly incoherently) for:

Many of my acquaintances have been “fat-piping” this off the net for weeks — mainly, I thought, for the thrill of being 43 years old and otherwise fairly respectable, but then being able to say “Whoo-wee, I’ve been fat-piping Heroes off the net” and making it sound like hot drugs or something. But, of course, Heroes is drugs. The tape I was sent had the first two episodes on, and even though I had had four hours’ sleep the night before, and didn’t finish watching the first episode until 1am, I didn’t hesitate for a moment before putting on episode two. Frankly, if they’d sent me the whole series, you’d be sitting here looking at a blank page, and my emaciated children would now be in care.

[…]

But the big news is that this is big news. Heroes is going to ruin your life (and if not now, then certainly when it comes to BBC Two in a couple of months).

You have now been chosen.

You’re going to find yourself interlinked with a shadowy brother-ship of “special” people across the world — geeks with fat tubes. You could be Heroes, just for the next couple of years.

Kevin Maher is (snarkily, and in the end somewhat tiresomely) against:

Holy creative inertia, Batman! Not more crypto-fascist fantasies of omnipotence disguised as mainstream entertainment and peddled by an increasingly decrepit and, frankly, comic book-obsessed popular culture! If anything, the much-hyped Heroes (Sci-Fi Channel) proved conclusively that, given the right flashy production values and cod-philosophical Weltschmertz, there are no subjects and no areas of modern life that cannot be infected by the inane juvenilia of comic-book lore.

Here the set-up was achingly familiar. A group of anodyne mostly white American catalogue models discovered that they had hitherto unexplored superpowers. “Tiny variations in man’s genetic code are taking place at rapid rates,” explained the show’s Indian, and thus quasi-spiritual, narrator Sendhil Ramamurthy before introducing us to a quintet of protagonists who could variously walk on air, stop time and live for ever — although noble-hearted internet stripper Niki (Ali Larter) clearly drew the short straw here by being lumbered, it seemed, only with the ability to see a sneering, slightly smug version of herself every time she looked in the mirror.

Naturally, ever keen to reveal its own genetic heritage, Heroes repeatedly treated us to scenes of characters reading comic books, painting giant comic-book pictures, and discussing comic-book stories — you just know you’re in a Geek Tragedy when X-Men and Star Trek are referenced in the same line of dialogue. Which might, in theory, have been fine if Heroes had stayed within the kitschy world of fantastical narratives established by the likes of X-Men and The Fantastic Four. But, no, this show had bigger thematic fish to fry.

Hence, before the first 20 minutes were up Heroes had invoked the political crisis in the Middle East, bus bombings in Israel and, of course, September 11. All of which were going to be solved, the show announced in its opening title crawl, by a handful of modern mutants with special abilities.

Now, personally, I find it both morally and artistically repugnant that the most urgent political crisis of our time, one that’s currently claiming thousands of lives every month, can be denuded of all context and cheerily coopted by the wish-fulfilment fantasies of some insular adolescent jerks. It is, surely, a sign of growing American political apathy when the cultural response to the Iraq crisis is simply to send Magneto into Baghdad. What’s next? Spider-Man for president? Wonder Woman at the UN? Or would that just be silly?

My Science Fiction Life

I’m a sucker. I was genuinely looking forward to My Science Fiction Life. Yes, on the one hand, it was a documentary about science fiction fans, and we know how those turn out. On the other hand, though, it was on BBC4, and it was coming at the tail-end of a perfectly respectable season of sf-related programming, and they’d gone to the trouble of sending a camera crew to a First Thursday, and they were going to be drawing talking heads from the general public. The signs were good, I tell you.

But look how it turned out. For starters, the format was a million miles away from The Martians and Us. I don’t mean that My Science Fiction Life should have been deadly serious — clearly that would have been disastrous in its own special way — but that it would have been nice to have got a sense that the programme-makers respected their subjects. Many of the contributions from the real people who contributed to the MSFL website (including Paul Cornell! Of whom more anon) were saying perfectly reasonable things, in good humour, in response to some pretty daft questions. But the frame that was built up around them made them seem, by association, like pedigree oddballs.

The opening narration, even, was quite promising, saying things like “science fiction fascinates everyone from bus drivers to brain surgeons, up and down the country”. The programme proper, though, was divided into segments, each of which was built around an interview with A. Person with a Science Fiction Life, and supplemented with the aforementioned MSFL interviews, and clips from sundry sf shows and films, and you can see where this is going already, can’t you? So, yes, under “They came from outer space” we got Jeff Wayne and Nick Pope, and under “Man & Machine” we got the ever-more-bonkers Kevin Warwick (and an atrociously misrepresentative piece of narration along the lines of, “From Arthur C. Clarke’s HAL to Isaac Asimov’s renegade I, Robot, that recently starred alongside Will Smith, science fiction writers have been imagining the damage that out-of-control machines could do”), who revealed that he had been first inspired by none other than Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man. Under “Designs on the Future” (probably the best segment) we got Will Alsop, who revealed that Blade Runner is an architects’ favourite, and talked about redesigning Barnsley; and under “The Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything” we got everything from Scientology (although that was introduced with a rather nice interview clip: “L. Ron Hubbard, do you ever think that you might be mad?” “Oh, yes.”) to the vicar who uses Star Wars and Star Trek in his sermons.

It rapidly became staggeringly obvious that for all that My Science Fiction Life had looked like it was going to be about the communities that have built up around science fiction, what the producers actually wanted to make was a programme about the people who take sf, or sf-related pursuits, to extremes. I’m trying not to be either too flippant or too grumpy here, since I realise that arguably any attempt by sf fans to explain the fundamental appeal of sf — to say that, yes, thinking about the future and about possibility matters — is liable to end up looking either over-earnest or just a bit barmy. But as it turned out, the gestures My Science Fiction Life made in that direction were superficial at best. The narration would make the (quite reasonable) point that sf can be a venue for looking at moral and ethical questions; cut to scientology and the sf priest. The narration would make the (perfectly understandable) point that our living spaces are likely to change in the future; cut to the man who’s made his flat into a Star Trek flat. And they didn’t use any of the footage from their trip to First Thursday, after all, although in the final analysis that’s probably a blessing.

But there was a bright spot, at least for me: Paul Cornell, who (bafflingly) was just listed as a MSFL contributer (rather than as, say, a writer of Doctor Who and other sf), but whose oblivious enthusiasm for his science fiction life shone through every time he was on-screen. He got the last word before the credits, too, with the rather endearing observation that “Oddly, without science fiction, I would be unmarried, lonely, and penniless.” Which is, it seems to me, as good a note as any on which to say that I’m off to the wilds of York, with little more than an 1,100 page Thomas Pynchon novel to sustain me, to spend a few days with people I wouldn’t have met except for my science fiction life. I’ll be back next Wednesday or so with best-stuff-of-the-year posts. Happy New Year, everyone!

Salon Fantastique: My Travels with Al-Qaeda

It’s a sneaky trick, this book: an unthemed anthology prettied up to look like a themed one. [EDIT: But see the comments] Why such fancy-dress should be necessary is unclear to me, but apparently it is (at least, with a couple of small-press exceptions, unthemed anthologies seem to be few and far between at the moment), and if that’s what it takes to give me the kind of enjoyable whiplash that going from “Concealment Shoes” to “My Travels with Al-Qaeda” gave me then, well, that’s what it takes. That said, the jump between Youmans’ story and this is only an exaggerated version of the jump between Shepard’s and di Filippo’s, or di Filippo’s and Youmans’. Theme anthologies are all very well, but they don’t tend to give you the sense of possibility, or the shock of the unexpected, that Salon Fantastique is giving me.

Not that the fragmented style, insistent tone, or serious subject of Lavie Tidhar’s story were, in themselves, surprises. Reading “My Travels with Al-Qaeda” after an extremely conventional story like “Concealment Shoes” made those aspects stand out, but in the last twelve months, Tidhar has published a bunch of stories, in venues like SCIFICTION, Clarkesworld Magazine and Strange Horizons; and most of them have been, in one sense or another, bold. They may not have been entirely successful (“My Travels with Al-Qaeda” isn’t quite a home run, either), but they almost always feel like Tidhar has something to say, and is trying to find the best way to say it.

This time around, “something to say” is a meditation on the aftershocks of terrorism, and “the best way” is fragmentation. “My Travels with Al-Qaeda” contains more subsections than pages, and despite its brevity includes two poems (both by Israeli writer Lior Tirosh who, if Google and the law of conservation of initials are anything to go by, is fictional) and two brief statements, by Martin Ayub and Khalid Saleh, taken from real FBI transcripts made in the wake of the 1998 US Embassy bombings. The fictional meat of the story focuses on a couple, a woman called Alyson and the unnamed (male?) narrator, and is stitched out of vignettes set in, primarily, Dar-es-Salaam in 1998, Tel Aviv in 2004, and London in 2005.

What is actually happening is unclear — one senses that Tidhar knows but, either deliberately or inadvertently, has not left quite enough textual clues for the reader to be able to piece together the backstory with certainty. “I keep going back to the disaster areas”, the narrator tells us at the start of the story; one interpretation of the last sentence is that this is literally true, that the 1998 bombings caused the narrator to come unstuck in time, Billy Pilgrim style, and that some attractive force exerted brings them back into the world at or near similar events. Another interpretation is that events are simply being told out of sequence: we also told “Perhaps it starts, if it starts at all, in July 2005”. Those appear to be the two poles of the story, at any rate. “Somehow,” the narrator says, “we are caught between these two summers, and the seasons freeze”; later, he likens their experience to a videotape played over and over again, looped with no resolution. A third interpretation is that the story is a dream, a jumbled up mash of recollection and imagination. This would suit the narrator’s omniscience, and their apparent ability to know what the other characters in the story are thinking, are dreaming.

To a large extent, it doesn’t matter which is the case. The power of the story — which is considerable — is in its effect on the reader. “Just another collapsed dream” is how one of the poems describes the ruins of the American Embassy in Nairobi, and whether the phrase is original to Tidhar or borrowed from Tirosh, the feelings of helplessness and resignation that it implies saturate the story. The world itself becomes oppressive — “August heat squats over low buildings” and “Night covers the tarmac as if trying […] to hide the city’s flaws” — and for a dozen pages or so, we are trapped in the loop with the narrator. But even when we’ve turn the page and escaped, the effect of the story lingers: we remember the urgency and economy of the telling, and the sharp sudden pains that are told.

Recent TV

So what’s the current feeling about Battlestar Galactica? I’ve been lagging behind real-time in my viewing, so I haven’t really read any commentary on the show since they left New Caprica. I thought “Torn”/”A Measure of Salvation” did good work on the Cylons, but cheated on the humans horribly, and that “Hero” and “The Passage” were about on a level with the second half of season two, with some nice moments and some less nice. (From “The Passage”, aka the Jane Espenson episode, I’m keeping the moment where Adama and Tigh collapse in hysterics as one of the absurdities of their ration situation hits home, and I’m trying to forget the frantic handwaving necessary to make the A-plot work.) And then there was “Unfinished Business”, aka The Boxing Episode, which was just a bit of a mess, really. From the teaser — a montage of stark, semi-related images, set to a soundtrack of slow, cold strings is fast becoming one of the show’s cliches — to the resolution, there was very little in the way of surprise, which is more of a shame than it would normally be, given that this was probably our one chance to see some of what happened in the missing year on New Caprica. Compared to, say, Diane Ruggiero’s use of flashbacks in Veronica Mars‘ “A Trip to the Dentist”, or Tim Minear’s use of them in Firefly‘s “Out of Gas” — both episodes designed to provide backstory that’s been informing the present story — Michael Taylor’s structuring of this episode looks distinctly amateur-hour. Too much material is repeated to no good effect. Starbuck and Apollo remember the same events, and the meaningful glances become very old, very fast, which is probably why the single biggest structural problem I’d point to is that the episode has the wrong emotional climax. Even if you’re particularly invested in the concept of Starbuck/Apollo (and I’m not), I think you have to concede that it’s not the Epic Romance that the last few minutes of “Unfinished Business” try to sell us. On the other hand, while the Adama flashbacks are arguably just as unsatisfying as the Starbuck/Apollo ones (cute though it is to see the fleet’s leaders giggling like schoolkids), some of them do set up Adama’s fight against the Chief, which is utterly riveting. It’s not clear whether Adama was looking for an excuse to get himself beaten up, or whether he felt it was necessary to give the crew the closure they needed, or both, or something else: either way, the long beat after his defeat, before his speech, is the single most powerful moment Galactica has generated this season.


One of the things that’s marked out Galactica all along is its tendency to include episodes, like “Unfinished Business”, that have absolutely no need to be sf, and could be transplanted wholesale to a more contemporary setting. That’s not an accusation you could ever level at Heroes, to which I now freely admit I’m addicted. Of course, the foregrounding of speculative elements in Heroes isn’t why the show works, per se, although it sure doesn’t hurt; the secret of its success is largely in its plotting. The decompressed, immaculately-woven tapestry of story threads feels, at least to me, like one of the things the show has most successfully ported from its source medium (although it’s worth noting that Galactica at its best, and in particular at the start of season two, has also used such techniques, so it’s not exactly a pure comics tradition). In that and many other ways, it’s fair to say that Heroes has become exactly what I hoped it would be when I first wrote about it, and fittingly the “fall finale”, Joe Pokaski’s “Fallout”, is the strongest episode of the season to date. Somewhere on livejournal I saw someone say that “Fallout” was made up of nothing but moments that would have been the centrepiece of an entire episode on another show, and that’s not much of an overstatement There’s an utterly gobsmacking amount going on, almost all of clever and effective, and if you asked me to pick a favourite moment from, say, Eden, the closing vision, Isaac’s painting, Peter and Claire, and the Haitian, I don’t think I could do it (and could probably name another three or four contenders if I took longer to think about it). The flipside, the show’s critics will say — and I have a running debate with Abigail about this — is that the show doesn’t do dialogue, doesn’t do character, doesn’t really do depth of any kind. The first two criticisms had some merit to start with, but it seems to me the writers have come on in leaps and bounds; with the possible exception of Niki, I don’t think there’s a single character on the show I’m not interested in, which is not a small accomplishment. The lack of depth is perhaps a more serious criticism, but even there I think a lot of people underrate Heroes — and anyway, it’s an attack that shifts the goalposts. First and foremost Heroes is more consistently fun than anything else on TV, and that’s not a small accomplishment, either.


And, not before time, Heroes even appears to have lost the voiceovers. I wish I could say the same of Torchwood, since whatever his other virtues John Barrowman just cannot sell that “the 21st century is when everything changes, and you gotta be ready” line to save his life, and it’s painful to hear him try at the start of each episode. The only reason I’m still watching the show, if I’m honest, is that I lack willpower: every Sunday evening I have something better to do (most of the time, I forget about Torchwood entirely), and every Monday, or at the latest Tuesday, I’ll see a comment somewhere about how this episode wasn’t bad, or started to show promise, and I’ll think, well, I’ve come this far … Paul Tomalin and Dan McCulloch’s arc-initiating “They Keep Killing Suzie” is the most recent episode I’ve watched, and while it was far from being the most horrible episode of the season so far (that honour still goes to CYBERWOMAN VS PTERODACTYL), anyone who seriously compares it to Heroes, or even to sub-par Galactica, has got to be on something pretty strong. Where Heroes gives its viewers cool stuff rooted in character, Torchwood tries to give its viewers shocking stuff not rooted in anything. Where Galactica is always, always beautiful, the cinematography and soundtrack on Torchwood make me want to cry. “They Keep Killing Suzie” had an interesting premise — the dead hand of the rogue Torchwood member who killed herself in the show’s pilot enacts a complicated vengeance — and one scene with actual emotional impact — the one with Gwen and Suzie in the car, after the hospital, talking about death, where Suzie says that humans are “just animals howling in the night, because it’s better than silence” — but it was all rather spoilt by the engagement of the, as Tony put it, TOTAL BOLLOCKS OVERDRIVE towards the end of the episode. (There’s something about this show that just inspires the use of ALL CAPS. I can’t help myself.) So … what was this week’s episode like?


That one emotionally involving scene did have a second good line, now I come to think of it, which was the one about all these aliens only washing up on Earth because there’s life here, because they’re drawn to it like moths to a flame. It strikes me that if Torchwood ever built on moments like that, and if it was ever any good, it could potentially (don’t laugh) start telling the stories about sex and death that a 21st-century James Tiptree, Jr might have told. Admittedly, they couldn’t go as far as “The Screwfly Solution” and actually end the world, but I think there’s room for a series working in that territory — Angel gave us “Billy”, for instance, which in retrospect looks not unlike a reconfigured version of “The Screwfly Solution”. I was somewhat amused, in a despairing kind of way, to come across comments like these about the Masters of Horror adaptation of Tiptree’s story, which insist that it’s not really horror but science fiction (as though it could only be one or the other), because to me it seemed to be full of the visual grammar of horror (from lashings of blood to dark woods), and because “The Screwfly Solution” is one of the two or three scariest stories I’ve ever read. It doesn’t really matter whether the premise (aliens who want our land corrupt the linkage between human male sexuality and violence; men start killing women) is an actual biological possibility. The thought that it might be — or to go back to “Billy”, the idea that it might be something in men, rather than solely something done to them — is utterly terrifying on its own. Here I suspect I’m disagreeing with Abigail, again (I already know I’m against her and with Matt Cheney on the story’s last line), but arguably the scariest thing about Hamm’s adaptation is how little updating it needed to retain that air of possibility. The rhetoric about bioterrorism and fundamentalist religion fits in more than comfortably, as does the suggestion of chemical castration, and between them Sam Hamm and Joe Dante almost entirely preserve the conviction and unarguable raw force of the original story. If I had Hugo nomination rights this year, for that feat alone “The Screwfly Solution” would be on my ballot.

The End Of The World As We Know It

It’s not the end of Science Fiction Britannia, which appears to continue at least until the fan-focused documentary My Science Fiction Life on December 27th, but it’s the end of the series, and the end of the world. The talking heads this time around are Stableford, Newman, Luckhurst and Aldiss again, Doris Lessing, Sam Youd, Christopher Priest, Kadwo Eshua, and Will Self — plus the litblogosphere’s current least favourite man, John Sutherland, although the worst I can say about his contributions is that I bridled slightly when he lauded J.G. Ballard’s “extraordinary imagination” in a way that implied he felt writers like John Wyndham weren’t imaginative because they told their stories in a plausible manner — and the range of texts discussed makes up, at least a bit, for some of the deficiencies of the earlier installments.

Which means that the third and final part of The Martians and Us is probably the best. And that’s not only because, having told a story about evolution that ended in 1968 and a story about dystopia that ended in 1986, this episode ends up in the present, although that’s a factor. It’s also because the episode gives a much greater sense of science fiction as a living genre, even if at times it seems to be a living genre composed of grumpy old men. I’m not sure why that’s the case. Part of it is the nature of the subject matter, since a greater proportion of the works discussed were written in living memory, and since tales of catastrophe have gained a level of popular traction that transcendental and ‘topian science fiction can’t quite match. Even leaving aside disaster movies — since, as Kim Newman rightly points out, those are mostly an American tradition, and British doomsday sf is more interested in the day after the day after tomorrow — something like The Day of the Triffids is, or was, a mass-market book in a way that I’m not sure is true of The Time Machine or Nineteen Eighty-Four. And there’s no parody of their tropes quite as deft as The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘s parody of the end of the world.

But equally, this episode somehow gives the impression of a sense of dialogue, of community, in a way that the earlier ones somehow just didn’t. There’s Brian Aldiss, defending his use of the term “cosy catastrophe” to describe John Wyndham’s work; there’s Christopher Priest, arguing that maybe it’s useful to think of Wyndham as a satirist; there’s Roger Luckhurst, suggesting that what Aldiss has missed is the sense of social exploration in Wyndham, a commitment to a quite ruthless social Darwinism. Or there’s Chris Priest again, this time talking about how a cover for New Worlds — “What is the exact nature of the catastrophe?”, which we are told was part of the genre discussion of Ballard’s The Drowned World — and talking about how it fed into Fugue for a Darkening Island (which of all Priest’s novels that I haven’t read is possibly the one I most want to get around to reading). Or there’s the discussion of 28 Days Later — according to Newman, the most important British sf film of the last ten years, and I can’t immediately think of an example to counter him with — and its obvious debt to Wyndham.

If science fiction in the first two episodes felt a bit like a told story, this time around it feels more like the telling is still going on — although, somewhat ironically, part of the episode’s argument is that the catastrophe novel as a subgenre of sf has had its day. The episode proposes a clear (according to John Sutherland, at any rate, and I have no particular reason to distrust him on this one) starting point for the subgenre, The Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel, and links it and most of the examples discussed later on to their social context, whether they were written at the pinnacle of Empire (Shiel), or between the wars (Sydney Foster Wright, Deluge), or at the disintegration of the postwar consensus (Priest), and so on. The world ends in a satisfying variety of ways, although perhaps surprisingly, only once by nuclear apocalypse, and that — Threads — was from tv. Various commentators nod knowledgeably about the reasons for the popularity of catastrophe stories, from the dramatic power of “if this goes on” to the practicality of thinking out worst-case scenarios.

And then we get to the end, and the narrator asks whether the time of the catastrophe story is past. In the closing minutes, it feels like almost all the contributors leap at the chance to say that it is, and explain why that might be so — the real world is being far too efficient at giving us catastrophes that are already happening (Priest); the media are making sure we know about them in detail, there’s no room for fiction (Lessing); we’re not going to be able to stop the catastrophe from happening (Sutherland). You sense that Kim Stanley Robinson might want to have words on that last point, although strictly speaking his Science in the Capitol trilogy is more about mitigation and adaptation, and you might also point to Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead or (a bit more tenuously) Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as recent catastrophe novels — except that all three writers are American, and two of them are very definitely not genre sf writers. In Britain, for whatever reason (and if we discount books like, say, Accelerando, where the end of the world is an incidental background blip), the only recent example I can think of is The Snow by Adam Roberts, and in the end that’s arguably not a catastrophe novel of the sort the programme talks about anyway.

So the episode doesn’t even try to get into specifics, but it might have a point. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, given the overall pretty high quality of the series. I tuned in to the Parallel Worlds documentary the other day, and it wasn’t nearly on the same level; despite many of the same talking heads, the discussion was much more lightweight, much less contextualised. The Martians and Us has looked in detail at three major stands of British sf, integrated discussion of film, tv and other non-book media smoothly where appropriate, and had intelligent and interesting people commenting on it all, and is generally a pretty impressive accomplishment. My caveat is only that the more I think about it, the more I think it could really have done with one more episode. For a theme, I think colonialism and postcolonialism, touched on this episode and the first episode but not really explored in either, could have legs, and it would do the two things I was really waiting for the series to do — bring the story more current, and point out that people other than grumpy old men have been writing sf too. You can see why, given the argument the series has been presenting, they haven’t mentioned Mary Shelley, but it would have been nice to see mentions of, say, Josephine Saxton or Naomi Mitchison, or discussions of Doris Lessing’s actual books, or latterly discussion of a writer like Gwyneth Jones. (Come to think of it, she should have been a talking head, too.) The stumbling block, I would guess, is that there isn’t a big-name author or text to hang that theme on, in the way that Wells, Orwell and Wyndham provided hangers for the episodes they did make (unless, perhaps, they went back to Wells for a different angle on The War of the Worlds); but by this point, I think most people would trust the series to tell them an interesting story anyway.

Trouble In Paradise

It’s not a Radio Times recommended programme this week, but the second installment of The Martians and Us is as well put together as the first, albeit a bit more obvious in its limitations. There may be an element of personal prejudice here: the theme this time around is utopias and dystopias, which I have to admit is not my specialist subject, or even one of particular interest to me. Much as I love Brave New World (and I do love it dearly), there’s something in most ‘topian fiction that stops me from being hooked. Perhaps it’s the sense of streamlining, of paring down the actual complexity of the world a bit too fa while sidestepping whatever catastrophe or other events led there — although, ironically, “Trouble in Paradise” builds a not-unbelievable case for ‘topian fiction as much more grounded in the real than most sf, presenting it as perhaps the most pure, naked expression of the central dreams and nightmares of the twentieth century that we have.

There are some differences to the first episode. This one spends noticeably more time focused on writers; which is not to say that the works get short shrift, but just to point out that the makers take pains to describe the personal and social contexts from which these works sprang in a way that they didn’t last week. Another change of emphasis can be seen in the selection of talking heads: alongside returning favourites such as Kim Newman, Nigel Kneale, and Brian Stableford, this week saw soundbites from John Carey, Will Self, Iain Banks, Ken Macleod, Margaret Atwood (!), Bernard Crick and Nicholas Murray. This is not a list that in any way effaces genre sf, but it doesn’t half give a lot of weight to more mainstream voices, with the inevitable undertones of “pay attention, this is the respectable bit!” that that engenders. And the presence of Crick (biographer of Orwell) and Murray (biographer of Huxley) hints at the weight that’s going to be placed on their two works — which is, of course, not surprising, but I’m not sure it’s the most interesting way to frame the argument the programme wanted to make, and it seems to thin out the story of British ‘topian fiction in much the same way such fiction seems to me to thin out the world. In this episode, Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four are the poles around which all else revolves.

Other texts do get a look-in. After a brief primer on Thomas More and Francis Bacon, and a link to the evolutionary/progressive argument for the development of sf aired in last week’s episode (“Darwin had rewritten the past […] writers believed they could predict the future”), we move on to Wells’ A Modern Utopia and The Shape of Things to Come (I don’t know exactly how accurate the description of Wells’ view of eugenics is; it certainly seemed a bit more extreme than other accounts I’ve heard), before arriving at the Two Big Books. We stay there for most of the rest of the episode, with brief (and again, admirably catholic) sidebars on Swastika Night (which I must read), The Year of the Sex Olympics (which I must see), A Clockwork Orange (which I didn’t really get on with), 1985 (which I have no real interest in reading), Judge Dredd (which I haven’t read much of), Doctor Who (which in the 1970s “came as close as anyone has to mass-producing dystopias”, says Kim Newman), Brazil (which is truly wonderful, isn’t it?) and, closest to the present, The Handmaid’s Tale (on what grounds, it’s not entirely clear).

But it’s Brave New World and Nineteen Eight-Four that occupy the lion’s share of the time. The points made range from the slightly fatuous, such as Peter Carey’s assertion that love is a threat in dystopian fiction because if you love someone else, you can’t love the state, which may be true in some books but doesn’t seem to me a very accurate reflection of the complexities of human emotions, to the more insightful, such as the discussions of the aversion to mass culture embedded, in different ways, in both Orwell and Huxley’s books. (Although there is discussion, inevitably, of reality tv, there’s no specific reference to Big Brother — except, cheekily, in the closing eye that marks the scene transitions.) I don’t want to downplay the importance of either novel, since if nothing else the way Orwell and Huxley react to each others’ texts is fascinating. Orwell said that Brave New World had “no relation to the actual future”, and went off and wrote Nineteen Eight-Four; much later Huxley read it, and wrote Orwell a patronising letter saying that that’s all very well, but it’s not how the future is really going to turn out. It was somewhat surprising to me to see how committed to their futures both writers seemed to be, how real their disagreement of vision was. They may not have intended them as straight-down-the-line prediction, but they certainly appears that they intended them as something more than just an argument about possibility, more than just another cautionary tale.

But in a couple of ways, I think the programme simplifies too much. Following through on the point about prediction, Margaret Atwood’s remarks near the end are telling: “For a while it looked like it was going to be Nineteen Eighty-Four,” she says (I paraphrase), “then the wall came down and we all thought it was going to be sex and shopping, and now the pendulum is swinging the other way, and Big Brother is watching over us more and more.” It’s not particularly helpful or particularly accurate to see history in this sort of binary light, I think. And in terms of a discussion of British ‘topian sf, it’s ludicrous to not even mention the Culture in passing — until you realise that the episode isn’t actually making an argument about British ‘topian sf in particular, it’s making an argument about the affect of British sf in general, one built around class and fear — not an invalid argument but one that in this iteration is very selective about its examples. There’s an interesting moment, in the middle of the narrator’s description of how dark and nasty British futures are, when Iain Banks says something along the lines of “Of course, while American sf was all gung-ho and can-do, British sf was very dour and maybe a bit dreary.” I didn’t get the quote down, so the adjectives are almost certainly wrong, but the thing I want to point out is that he was making a past-tense remark, and the programme took it as present-tense. It’s not just the Culture, in other words; all the British sf that (I suspect) most people are reading this are most familiar with, the stuff from the 90s and onwards that is so frequently expansive and extravagant, might as well not exist at all.

The Martians and Us

Here is everything that’s wrong with Radio Times:

The Martians and Us: From Apes to Aliens

The first of a brainy three-part history of British science fiction looks at the preoccupation of genre writers with evolution. The programme explores the progress-v-decay debate through the work of professors of the prescient from HG Wells to Arthur C Clarke. It uses psychedelic visualisations and book extracts read with sonorous gravity by Peter Capaldi, while well-chosen clips from Doctor Who, Things to Come and 2001: a Space Odyssey distract from periods of excessive chin-stroking.

— Mark Braxton

Because heaven forbid a television documentary take science fiction seriously.

Did anyone else watch this? I have to say I was impressed, and there isn’t even an implied “for tv” in that statement. The Martians and Us is one of the flagship programmes in the “Science Fiction Britannia” season that BBC Four is running at the moment. It looks like a pretty good season in general, to the point where, if I’m not careful, I can see myself doing nothing but watching BBC Four for the next three weeks. For example, tonight at 10.55 there’s an extended interview with Iain Banks ; and on Monday 27th there’s what looks like an interesting drama based on a Wyndham short. I’m not sure when whatever programme is going to use the footage filmed at last month’s ton is going to air, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for it.

It’s tempting to wonder whether the season got commissioned, in whole or in part, off the back of the success of Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who, not least because damn near the only present-tense moment in the first episode of this series is a clip from Rob Shearman’s first-season episode “Dalek” — specifically, the death of the last Dalek — complete with narration that assumes familiarity with, say, Rose in a way that familiarity is clearly not assumed when talking about even H.G. Wells. That aside, though, whoever’s behind it all has indeed taken science fiction seriously, lining up an impressive array of talking heads, giving them enough space to say useful things, and structuring the episodes (or at least episode one) around reasonably sensible arguments. If I have a reservation about the series, it’s that it looks like it’s going to cut off at about 1980; rather than being a linear history, the three episodes seem to describe three strands of british sf. Episodes two and three are “dystopias” and “the end of the world“, respectively — for which read “Orwell” and “Wyndham”, I assume — and episode one, which took as its theme “evolution”, didn’t get past 1968.

But that’s ok, because it allowed the episode to deal with its touchstones — Wells; Stapledon; Quatermass; The Midwich Cuckoos; and Arthur C. Clarke — in some depth, with sidebar trips into Doctor Who, Buck Rogers and others. The use of evolution as an organising principle puts the focus squarely on the scientific romance tradition, and mostly works well, as in the moment when, after a long discussion of The Time Machine, the focus switches to Doctor Who, and a shot of the first Doctor meeting primitive savages. They’re in the deep past, not the deep future, but after the preceding discussion about how evolution does not guarantee progress, the narrator’s comparison — “meet the Morlocks” — still feels apt. Similarly, The War of the Worlds is linked to the we-are-the-Martians ending of Quatermass and the Pit, and both are used to develop, in combination with the “education turns you into an alien” theme identified in The Midwich Cuckoos, a more general theme of alien intervention in human development, most particularly as explored in Clarke’s work.

This is a series, then, focused on the literary history of British sf, with media (by and large, rightly) seen as responding to or adapting earlier work, and it’s a focus that’s also evident in the featured commentators. There are critics (Roger Luckhurst, Patrick Parrinder), writer-critics (Brian Aldiss, Brian Stableford, Kim Newman), and writers (Doris Lessing, Stephen Baxter, China Mieville, and from tv-land, the late Nigel Kneale), with a relative (Mary Shenai, daughter of Olaf Stapledon) and a biologist (the eminently reliable Steve Jones) rounding things out. There are, in other words, a bunch of people who really like science fiction, and really get science fiction — the whole awe and wonder and majesty bit — and whatever Mark Braxton may say about chin-stroking, for me that shone through. So Kim Newman gets to be Kim Newman, throwing off irreverent but somehow telling trivia; Brian Aldiss reads the famous opening of The War of the Worlds, and can’t quite stifle a little yelp of glee when he’s done; China Mieville talks about H.G. Wells’s love of the weird; and Doris Lessing and Stephen Baxter wax lyrical about the mind-expanding effects of Starmaker. The narration is mostly good, too, striking just the right balance between witty and informed. On Stapeldon, for instance: “By night he taught philosophy; by day he thought up plans for the future of mankind.” On the arrival of American sf in Britain after World War Two: “Overcoloured, overblown, and over here.” And on the world before Darwin and deep time, before The Time Machine: “There was time, but not much of it.”

And there’s Arthur C. Clarke, who provides what is probably the episode’s most powerful moment. Towards the end of the episode, the discussion shifts to how the reality of space travel overtook science fiction; and having just been talking about Childhood’s End and 2001, the director goes back to Clarke for a comment. And he says, slowly, something like, “I really thought there would be much more space travel than there has been.” Pause. “That’s a failure of imagination, I suppose.” There was for me something tremendously sad about that pause, but tremendously dignified, too. It’s a moment that would have made the episode worth watching even if I’d been gritting my teeth the rest of the way through, because it says that science fiction should be about possibilities, not dreams. And that (it says, and I agree) is an important distinction.

One More Quote

Saxon Bullock on Torchwood, Russell T. Davies and sf:

It may say science fiction on the tin, but Torchwood so far has only been as much sci-fi as the new relaunch of Doctor Who has been — i.e., not very much. RTD may love the paraphenalia of sci-fi, but he’s got absolutely no interest in it as a mode of storytelling, and most of the sci-fi devices in Torchwood could be shifted into the realm of ‘magic’ with very little effort. More than anything else, this mode of storytelling is all about avoiding the kind of dislocation that’s at the heart of normal sci-fi — instead, it’s all about emotionalism, wish-fulfilment, and confronting the issue-of-the-week. This has manifested itself in a number of dodgy ways (the supposedly hilarious sequence where the character Owen uses an alien spray that essentially magnifies the ‘Lynx Effect’ up to levels where the phrase ‘date rape’ wouldn’t be completely inappropriate), but it’s also showing up that, at heart, there’s not very much so far that seperates out Torchwood from its influences. With Doctor Who, RTD was performing a relaunch — and as a result he had a history he could play with, things he could react against, and a whole public perception that he could manipulate to his own ends. Now, whether or not I agree with what he did, I think the main trouble with Torchwood is that he’s starting from scratch, and his magpie habits are showing through too strongly.

In Brief

Here’s the terrible secret about this blog: the posts don’t just happen. They are planned. I don’t usually read a story, or a book, or watch a film or a tv show, and think, “hey, I want to write about this”. Sometimes that happens — it did with Children of Men, for instance — but those are the exceptions. More often, I’m on the lookout for things I want to write about. Recently, though, my plans have all come to nothing, or at least not very much. What follows are some fragments of aborted posts on some not-as-interesting-as-I’d-hoped failures: some stories, a film, and a tv show. (I’m really selling this, aren’t I?)

“Chu and the Nants” and “Postsingular” by Rudy Rucker

Inspiration is a tricky thing, especially when publicly acknowledged. When, a few years ago, Paul di Filippo wrote Fuzzy Dice, a novel inspired by and intended as a tribute to Rudy Rucker’s tremdous, barmy, transreal exploration of transfinite mathematics, White Light, it seemed somewhat miraculous that he pulled it off: his novel was just as tremendous as, and arguably even barmier than, Rucker’s. More recently, Rucker has in turn been inspired, as he acknowledges in the headnotes to the Asimov’s appearances of these two stories, and in a more-or-less loveletter to the book in question published in the November 2005 NYRSF. But while you can see how di Filippo got from White Light to Fuzzy Dice, if I didn’t know Rucker’s inspiration was Charles Stross’s Accelerando, I don’t think I’d have guessed the lineage. The two writers tell their stories in very different ways.

So far, whatever it is that Rucker’s up to is not very exciting. “Chu and the Nants” and “Postsingular” (note that both links are to excerpts, not complete stories) are set in the same future history. The former is backstory to a forthcoming novel, Postsingular, and explains how a nanotech singularity gets reversed by a clumsy plot gimmmick; the latter is part of the novel, and dramatises a rather more novel singularity, involving the overlay of a digital realm onto the physical, thanks to what amount to smart nanotech tags, which are the sort of thing I’m sure I’ve read Bruce Sterling enthusing about at some time or other.

Rucker’s plainspoken, laid-back style is almost the polar opposite of Stross’s data-dense lingo; if anything, these stories feel more like the work of Cory Doctorow, or like descendants of Vinge’s “True Names”. Which is fine, except when plainspoken becomes simply flat, and it too often does: the explanatory digressions are thinly veiled, and most of the characters are just thin. Ond, the (anti)-hero engineer at the centre of both stories, has motivations that are simplistic at best, and simply embarrassing at worst (his big realisation that bringing on the singularity might not have been a great idea comes when his wife starts electronically cheating on him); and most of the female characters are shrill, except when they’re being stupid. Neither story has the energy or the charm of White Light, and the ideas in them feel tame and familiar, even when they’re not. Probably the most interesting thing about the stories (aside from the use, or possibly invention of, increasingly improbable SI prefixes) is their embrace of the “postsingularity = magic” idea: in “Chu” a computer program is described, with very little irony, as a magic spell, while “Postsingular” features more spells, heaven, and some angels. But the whole enterprise has the sort of curiously weightless feeling that Accelerando was (mostly) notable for avoiding, and doesn’t inspire great confidence in the novel.

Death of a President

Death of a President is the second speculative docudrama about the US that I’ve seen this year, the first being the lower-budget, but more ambitious and more successful, C.S.A.. Writer-director Gabriel Range spins a tale that does exactly what it says on the tin: relates the circumstances surrounding, and the fallout from, the assassination of President George W. Bush in Chicago (which city is lovingly captured in a series of sweeping establishing shots) on October 19, 2007.

The first part of the film, which portrays a Presidential visit that meets with widespread protest, is good. It perhaps tends somewhat towards the hysterical, but arguably that’s necessary to set up a situation in which it’s plausible that the secret service would lose control. The second part of the film, which focuses on the fallout, is much less good, because the only part of the fallout it focuses on is the investigation into whodunit, and because that investigation is about the most predictable and politically heavy-handed you can imagine. A series of archetypal suspects — in particular, the shifty, pasty white man; the black man who may or may not have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time; and, of course, the Syrian — are wheeled out in turn, and I suspect it’s not spoiling anything if I tell you that the last of those three is subjected to a hasty, shoddy trial and a conviction that subsequently turns out to be a mistake. (The identity of the actual assassin is about as big a cop-out as I can imagine.) In the background, Cheney ascends to the Presidency, rattles some sabres, and gets PATRIOT 3 passed, but otherwise seems to do remarkably little. Range is entitled to tell the story he wants to tell, of course, but I can’t help thinking that a slightly broader perspective would have made for a much more interesting film.

Torchwood

What struck me most about Torchwood was how normal the normal bits are. For all the fuss made about the incorporation of Rose’s family into the Russell T. Davies incarnation of Doctor Who, the Tylers and their friends always felt to me like a tv family. By contrast, Gwen, her colleagues and her boyfriend seemed a bit more grounded. Admittedly, part of this perception is probably due to the fact that some of Gwen’s mannerisms and dialogue reminded me alarmingly of someone I knew at university; but even allowing for that, the scene (for example) where Captain Jack takes Gwen for a drink had a sort of incongruous meeting-of-worlds feel to it that recent Who only managed once or twice in two seasons.

As I’m sure most people reading this are more than well aware by now, I haven’t been overly impressed by new Who. It’s had its moments — mostly involving scripts by Steven Moffatt — but not many of them, and they’ve been almost lost in the general mediocrity and occasional outright amateurishness. But I’ve liked much of RTD’s other work (particularly The Second Coming), and wondered whether he might do better starting a show off from scratch. The other notable thing about Torchwood, though, is how much it doesn’t start from scratch. Its genetic makeup seems to be (even leaving aside the elements taken from a certain well-known show) about 10% Doctor Who, 5% Spooks (mostly the soundtrack), 30% Men in Black, 10% Generic British Drama, 5% Buffy, and 40% Angel.

The second episode (the Chris Chibnall-scripted “Day One”), in particular, had an Angel vibe about it — not, as some have said, for the loose similarities the plot bore to “Lonely Hearts” (the similarities were there, but they were very loose), and not particularly in the tone, but rather in the general structure of the show, and the sense of what it was trying to do. Captain Jack has been reinvented, consciously or not, as a more Angel-esque figure: invulnerable, somewhat more brooding, prone to standing on high buildings staring out over “his” city, and power-walking through the opening credits in a long flowing coat. The story took a fantastic element and used it as a metaphor for an aspect of human experience (Modern Life Is Sex); and Jack’s sidekick Gwen, while more of a viewpoint character than Cordelia ever was, offers the same sort of connection-with-common-humanity that the Queen of Sunnydale High provided for Angel. At one point in “Day One”, Jack asks Gwen to tell him “what it means to be human in the 21st century”, which as mission statements for tv shows go is surely ambitious enough for anyone.

The problem for me is not so much that Torchwood‘s influences are so obvious, but that they have been followed in their flaws as well as their virtues, without any real thinking-through. For one thing, the writers seem to be of the “sf doesn’t need consistent plotting” school; and to continue with the theme, Joss Whedon isn’t the strongest plotter in the world, either, but he tends to be much, much better at papering over his holes than RTD or most of his team. Nor do these writers have Whedon’s skill at fleshing out secondary characters: Toshiko and Owen remain cutouts. And the whole of the UK seems to indulge in the sort of mass-denial of alien existence that would put Sunnydale to shame — and as Martin Wisse notes, that kind of denial doesn’t really play in a science-fiction world, particularly on the sort of scale it’s used here. Torchwood may yet develop its own identity — it took Angel almost a season, after all — but at the moment it’s not even close to being a must-watch.

EDIT: Discussion of this post seems to be happening on the lj feed. Which, of course, means it’ll vanish into the ether in about three weeks. Sigh.