Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Combination Plate 20

Spoiler Warning: I will reveal important plot elements and endings if necessary in the discussion.

Moon: an SF film

Ever Since The World Ended
: an SF film

Geoff Ryman: Air, an SF novel

Peter Temple: Truth, a mystery

The Mutant Chronicles: an SF? horror? slasher film

Villains in earlier SF films and stories tended to be clumped into well-defined categories: bad governments, alien invaders, mad scientists, mutated critters of all sorts (grasshoppers, ants, rabbits. . .), and the hazards of space travel. Over the years some popular types have dropped out and new ones have taken their place. For example, aliens are no longer universally viewed as evil, as demonstrated by the recent film Avatar, which also provides an example of a new type of villain--the corporation. Corporations are now portrayed as evil, or at best, insensitive to the effects they have either on beings or the environment. In fact, I can't think of a recent film or story that has a benevolent corporation. There may be some, but as I haven't read every story or seen every film, I may have missed it.


an SF film

Sam Bell has the perfect job for a hermit, or at least a loner. He has signed a three-year contract with a mining company to monitor an automated computer- run mining installation. He will be the only human on the site, and, moreover, the mining site is on the far side of the moon. His only company has been Gerty (voice of Kevin Spacey), the computer whose job it is to run the mining operation and also to monitor Sam Bell. Sam's only contact with humans has been the occasional TV contact with his wife and daughter and a mining official. Sam's contract is nearing the end of his three years, and he is looking forward to rejoining his family. He's been alone long enough, almost too long perhaps, because he's beginning to hallucinate the presence of others on the installation.

All is still going well, though, until Gerty informs him that one of the harvesters has malfunctioned. Bell decides to take a rover there to see if he can figure out the problem. On the site he has an accident which traps him in the rover, and he is rendered unconscious.

In the next scene we see him back at the station, with no apparent injuries. He decides to go back to the site and attempt to figure out what happened. Once there he discovers another rover and a man in a spacesuit trapped inside, just barely alive.

In the next scene, we are back at the main installation and discover two Sam Bells, which for the sake of clarity, I will designate as Bell1, the first Sam Bell, the one who was injured, and Bell2, the "new" Sam Bell.

The answer, of course, is cloning. Bell2 is a clone of Bell1. However, both argue that they are the real Bell but agree to put that dispute aside for the time being. The real problem is where Bell2 came from. From this point on, the film becomes a mystery as they attempt to solve the riddle of the Bell clones. As you may have guessed by now, the villain in this film is the "evil corporation."

I found it an interesting film, low-key, and what was best, not a single car chase, gun battle, or exploding building throughout. The focus is on the relationship between the two Bells and their struggle to determine just what the real situation is. Certain questions need to be answered: Bell1 is going home shortly--just what will happen to Bell2? If Bell2 is a clone and just recently created (by whom?), how can he be the same age as Bell1?

The questions, eventually, are answered, and unfortunately, recent headlines regarding corporate and also government behavior, suggest that they really would act that way.

My favorite line in the film is also the last line in the film. Bell2 has managed to escape to Earth and has told his story to the UN. A radio talk show host has this comment about Bell2's story: "This guy is either wacko or an illegal immigrant. Either way he should be locked up for good."

I wonder what state the radio host lives in--I think I can guess.


Ever Since The World Ended

This appears to be a low-budget, independent film. One of its most striking features is the lack of special effects. If one mutes the dialogue, one would find it hard to guess that this is a post-holocaust film.

The film is set in the San Francisco Bay area. Approximately seven years have passed since the great plague killed most of the inhabitants, and fewer than 300 people now live in the area. The disease acted so quickly that there was no chance of doing any research leading to identification and perhaps a cure. They do not know where the plague came from--whether it was a naturally evolving plague or perhaps something that escaped from a laboratory or even the result of an attack by an enemy that succeeded all too well. Since it was a disease and not a war, in the conventional sense anyway, there is no destruction, therefore no need for special effects showing any devastation.

The film is an audio-visual record made by a survivor who decided that it was time to document life as it now is after the plague. It's a comfortable, quieter, more peaceful life now. In fact, I got the feeling that many were happy that the plague took place.

To be brief, the cameraman wanders around the area, films the everyday activities of the survivors, and interviews a number of them. Some are teaching the children that survived the plague, while others work to find ways to get around the lack of a central power system--batteries are very important now. Since there was very little destruction, people live in houses just as they did before the plague. Clothing is not a problem yet, so all are dressed as they were before the plague.

There is no real government, just a group of people who meet to discuss and suggest ways of solving problems that arise. One problem that has recently arisen is the return of the arsonist. Shortly after the plague they found him setting fires (he was a firefighter before the plague), in abandoned buildings, at least so far. They forced him to leave the area and warned him not to return.

He has returned, in spite of the warning, and insists that he is cured of his problem and no longer has any desire to set fires. The group is not unanimous about what to do. Some want to give him a chance, while others see him as a threat. The problem is that there is no one who wants to watch him constantly. If he is locked up, who will be the jailer? Who will feed him?

Several of the characters decide that it is now time to try to connect up with other small communities. Five of them, including the cameraman, begin a trek to the nearest community. They expect to be gone a week or so. Several days into the trip, they are fired upon by one or more people, and one of them is wounded. Unlike characters in numerous other films I've seen, these people are not heroes who are determined to carry on, regardless of the risk. Life is too precious. They turn back.

The killing has not stopped.

At times I found the film compelling, mainly because of the format--a documentary. At no time did I get the feeling that I had seen something like this before. Since there really was no plot, no story line, I never could predict what was coming next. It is what it was supposed to be- a rather amateurish attempt to document on film the way people lived now, some seven years after the plague.

At the same time, this is also an handicap, for though it was compelling--at times-- I was only slightly involved at other times, but enough so that I was interested and never considered giving up on it. Since there were no real overarching storyline and dominant characters to follow, there really was nothing there for me to get deeply involved in.

For example, the only two incidents I remember are those which involved the arsonist who had returned and the failed exploratory expedition. Both had drama and a specific issue to be resolved. Both are resolved--sadly. I remember little about the rest of the film.

Recommended for those who are interested in post-holocaust films and would like to see an atypical treatment, something without scenes of destruction, mutants, zombies, etc.


Geoff Ryman: Air, an SF novel of the near future

This has to be one of the most interesting SF novels I've read recently. The basic idea is simple. A means of transmitting information has been developed that will allow all humans to connect with, well, let's call it the Internet for want of a better term, without the need of any physical equipment. Instead of turning on one's PC, laptop, or other electronic device, all one has to do is think about connecting up. Once connected, the individual simply thinks about various actions instead off have to mess around with a keyboard or mouse. If wanted, I guess one could simply visualize a mouse or keyboard and interact that way.

The good side is that it is free and accessible to everyone. It's in the air. And, that's also the bad side; people do not have a choice. All, including the most isolated villagers sitting high atop a mountain or deep within a swamp or desert are hooked in--involuntarily. It wasn't clear, but I think that those who do not make an effort to hook up will not be affected in any way. It just won't be there for them. Of course, there really haven't been any long-term study made of the effects of being immersed in Air, nobody really knows what the effects will be--socially, culturally, or physically--in a few decades.

There are two slightly different formats to this process. The United Nations elected to install Air as its choice, therefore blocking the other format, which was called Gates. Gates is the format owned by a large software company (you can guess which one). The UN decided to get involved because it thought that having a political entity control a process that affected every human on the planet would be preferable to a corporation having that control.

Ryman focuses on a small isolated village in a country in Central Asia. The inhabitants are a mix of Chinese Buddhists who fled from communism decades ago, Moslems, Hindus, and indigenous peoples. They are poor, but they have managed to survive for centuries. There is only one TV set in the village, owned by one of the wealthier families. They have set the TV up so that in the evening, anyone who wishes can stop by and watch. Shortly afterwards, another wealthy family suddenly decides to get a TV, the latest and more up-to-date, as they point out, and lets it be known that visitors are welcome to stop by.

The main character is Chung Mae, a Chinese woman who has become the style leader or fashion expert for the women in the village. She learns of the project and fears for what it means to her village and their culture. She adopts the old adage--know thy enemy--thinking that learning about it will help her to fight it and thereby maintain their way of life. Of course, the ending at this point is predictable.

One example of the very predictable outcome is the episode of the collars. In her village, people who are involved in a significant event or do something significant get together, decide on a pattern, and weave a collar that is distinct from all others. It is their sign that they were involved in this event and are proud of it. Chung Mae in her interactions on the Net finds there is a great market for this type of apparel at this time. Her employees, she has a small company by this time, make up the collars and send them off to their distributor in New York. Chung Mae doesn't realize what she has done. She has taken this item of significance to the people of her village and turned it into a global accessory, worn by people to whom it is merely a fashion statement.

What will the future be like? I think Chung Mae's infant is an example. Born at the end of the novel, the infant has suffered severe burns and loss of all senses--vision, smell, hearing, touch. . .
Chung Mae says to her child, "My little future. You are blind, but you will not need to see, for we can all see for you, and sights and sounds will pass through to you from us. You have no hands, but you will not need hands, for your mind will control the machines, and they will be as\ hqnds. Your ears also burned away, but you will hear jmore in one hour than we heard in all of our lifetimes."

Without physical senses, how can the child form a sense of a separate identity?

I find this terrifying.

The last words of the novel: " . . . all of them turned and walked together into the future."

The characters walk off at the end into a bright future.

Perhaps . . .

Ryman, I believe, has constructed an allegory, with Air being the all-pervasive destructive influence of Western technological culture on local cultures and mores. I found this disturbing, but the others in the SF discussion group that selected Air disagreed. I got the feeling I was perceived as being a Luddite, one against progress. After all, I was one of the few there that didn't have a mobile phone. Well, perhaps I am. But, I still have a choice. The people in Ryman's novel didn't.

To sum up, perhaps Ryman is saying that change is inevitable, that for every gain there will be a loss, that the best one can do is to work with it, that one should do one's utmost to control it and not be controlled by it.

It's an intriguing story and one that I would recommend.


Peter Temple, Truth
Mystery type: Police Procedural
Location: Melbourne, Australia
Time: Contemporary

It's an ironic title for at the end I wasn't sure I had found the truth. It's my first novel by Temple, so I don't know whether this writing style is typical of him. It takes a while to get into the flow for it could be described as telegraphese with its short sentences, staccato flow, and missing subjects. Several of the members of the discussion group stopped reading because of the style. One of the members called it hyper-machismo.

This is the first in a series of novels featuring the cases of John Villani, head of the homicide squad in Melbourne, Australia. Villani's problems aren't limited to solving murders, for his marriage is falling apart and his daughter is hooked on drugs. At one point, his daughter is arrested, and he decides to let her think about it overnight in jail, rather than get her out that night. His wife doesn't agree.

Other obstacles are corrupt superiors in his own department, corrupt politicians, and corrupt business leaders. He himself is not exactly pure, as one might guess from his last name--Villani. If one switches the last two letters in his name, it becomes Villain--interesting coincidence, if that is what it is. Coincidence or not, I got the same feeling from reading this novel as I did from reading several of Ian Rankin's "Rebus" stories. Corruption is in the air.

Overall Reaction: The plotting is complex, and several of the characters, including Villani, are finely drawn. If you are up for a really gritty and grubby police procedural and are willing to work a bit with the style, it's worth reading. But, don't expect to settle back and get comfortable while reading it. Its staccato style put me on edge, and it was more like starts and stops than a smooth flow.

Having said this, I would still say--take a look at it. It is different.


The Mutant Chronicles:
a film.

Actually, I think it's a misnamed film; if one considers the precise meaning of mutant, then these aren't mutants. Just what they are--I'll let you decide, if you ever watch this film.

The world is divided among four corporate states which are permanently at war with one another (see George Orwell's 1984, even though he had only three states):

1. Capitol (North America perhaps),
2. Bauhaus (Central Europe?),
3. Imperial (???), and
4. Mishima (Asia?--probably a reference to the right-wing Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, who committed suicide when he couldn't persuade the Japanese army to overthrow the government and restore the Emperor as ruler).

The film opens on a battlefield in the trenches with the Capitol army. The enemy this time is BAuhaus. The two armies have constructed trenches that stretch over many miles. Suddenly, the Bauhaus artillery opens with a sustained barrage, a sure sign of an impending attack. Then the barrage lifts, and the Bauhaus army goes over the top and charges into withering fire in the no-man's land between the two armies. It appears the Capitol lines will hold until the Bauhaus troops begin lobbing canisters of poison gas into the Capitol trenches (see World War I, for more information).

In the midst of the hand-to-hand struggle, a third force intervenes and slaughters both sides. We now switch to a conference room where the representatives of the four states are meeting. There they learn from a representative (played by Ron Perlman) of a small and unknown religious order (we know it's a religious order because he's wearing monk's robes and a hood) of the nature of the threat.

Thousands of years ago, a space ship landed carrying a machine. The machine could turn humans into slaves to do its bidding. After a prolonged struggle, the machine was finally isolated and sealed away in an underground cavern. The religious order has been tasked with keeping watch over the machine for lo these many thousands of years. Now, the machine has breached the walls confining it and is again attempting to master the human race. (I'll bet that some of this sounds vaguely familiar.)

The conference comes up with two solutions. Build space craft to take them to Mars as soon as possible. Even though they can't build enough for the entire population, there will be enough room for the leaders and the powerful and rich elite, and possibly a few of the common folk.

The second solution is to recruit a small group of warriors and hope that they might be able to get to the machine and destroy it (see The Dirty Dozen and numerous other films). The film follows predictably from this point.

One little twist is that though a single shot, even to the head, won't stop the critters from coming, a sword can and will kill them. So, this allows for a considerable amount of blood splattering and gushing as the critters are armed only with a long knife, so now there's a reason for both sides to hack away at each other.

While watching the machine attempt to convert a human, I couldn't help but remember a somewhat similar scene in Star Trek: The Next Generation, as Captain Picard is turned into a Borg. And, the critters remind me of zombies
, even though a bit more agile, but certainly not any prettier--zomborgs? borbies? I don't know, but I certainly don't consider them mutants.

The atmosphere, the setting, is as dark and grim as any I've seen, and very well done. I didn't spot a zipper anywhere.

At the end, Mitch (the leader of the squad) is standing on the top of the underground tower while everything crashes down around him. Suddenly, the quiet but urgent voice of Obi-Wan Kanobi is heard: "Use the Force, Luke, use the Force." I couldn't believe this, so I froze the film, backed it up a bit, and replayed it. What was really said? It was the voice of Ron Perlman, who apparently wasn't dead, at least not yet, saying: "Jump, Mitch, trust me, jump."

The last scene of the film? Nothing after a hard day of hacking and chopping and slicing tastes quite as good as a cigarette.

Recommendation: Lots of fun, best viewed with others of like minds and with plenty of one's favorite mood enhancer.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain LI

Quatrain LI is one of my favorites, and FitzGerald must have been satisfied with it also.

First Edition: Quatrain LI

The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Second Edition: Quatrain LXXVI

The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Fifth Edition: Quatrain LXXI

The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

As far as I can see, FitzGerald made only two changes--the substitution of the more prosaic "your" in the second and fourth lines in the later editions, for the more poetic "thy." Being somewhat perverse in these matters, I prefer "thy" for it seems, at least to me, to flow much more smoothly: "thy tears" as opposed to "your tears."

I think the reference to the "Moving Finger" that "writes" comes from The Old Testament, specifically the Book of Daniel, 5: 1-4. This is the account of Belshazzar's Feast in which sacred vessels taken from Solomon's Temple were being used in rituals to the Babylonian gods. A hand appears and writes Mene, Mene, Teqel, Upharsin on the wall, a foretelling of the approaching fall of the Babylonian empire.

It relates, therefore, back to the previous quatrains which point out that we have no control over our fate or destiny, for it is determined by powers outside our ken and there's nothing we can do to prevent or even modify it.

This is part of what I see as an element of predestination in The Rubaiyat. I haven't read any of the other translations so I can't say whether this is present in Khayyam's quatrains or is something introduced by FitzGerald.

Monday, January 2, 2012

2012: New Year's Resolution, Reading List, and Reading Challenges

Last year I created a combined New Year's Resolution, Reading List, and Reading Challenges for myself. It was simply to read two books a month from my TBR bookcase, a total of 24 for the year. The Bad News is that I only managed to read 15 of 24 books, not even two-thirds of my goal. The Good News is that I managed to read 15 of 24 books, therefore removing 15 books from the bookcase. Consequently, I have decided to try again this year, hoping to either make my goal or even exceed it.

Overall it was a good year. Following is a partial list of the books I did read and would recommend.

Stella Gibbons: Cold Comfort Farm
Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha
Kim Stanley Robinson: The Wild Shore
Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf
Loren Eiseley: The Immense Journey
Fred Vargas: Seeking Whom He May Devour
Joseph Conrad: Victory
Mikhail Bulgakov: Heart of a Dog
Joseph Wood Krutch: Baja California and the Geography of HopeKS Robinson: The Gold Coast
Thomas Mann: The Transposed Heads
Russell Hoban: The Lion of Boaz-Jachim and Jachim-Boaz
Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart
Bruce Stolbov: Last Fall
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn: We Never Make Mistakes
Karin Fossum: The Indian Bride or Calling Out for You
Ken Grimwood: Replay
China Mieville: Kraken
Dan Simmons: Hyperion
Jack London: The Sea-Wolf
Rudyard Kipling: Kim
Arthur Conan Doyle: The Hound of the Baskervilles
Ingrid Black: Circle of the Dead
Lewis Carroll: Alice in Wonderland
Philip Jose Farmer: To Your Scattered Bodies Go
Michael Gregorio: A Visible Darkness
Arnaldur Indridason: Silence of the Grave
P. D. James: Death Comes to Pemberley
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching
Eliot Pattison: The Lord of Death
Kim Stanley Robinson: 40 Signs of Rain
Ben Sanders: The Fallen
C. J. Sansom: Heartstone
John Scalzi: Android's Dream
Manil Suri: Death of Vishnu