Sunday, 25 September 2016

Here Comes The Sun

Movie trivia: what were the most expensive films produced in 1990? As BuzzFeed might put it: the answer may surprise you. 1st: Die Hard 2 ($70 million), 2nd: Total Recall ($65 million), 3rd: Dick Tracey? Back To The Future 3? The Hunt For Red October? Nope. Solar Crisis ($55 million).

And yet I am going to take a punt and suggest that you have never even heard of Solar Crisis, much less seen it. It certainly wasn't one of the top grossing films of 1990. In fact, outside Japan (it was a Japanese-US co-production based on a Japanese novel), it seems to have had a very limited cinematic release. But $55 million is a lot of money to splurge on a straight-to-video B-movie. So was it some kind of mafia money laundering scheme? Well, not on the face of it - it stars Charlton Heston (yes, that one), Jack Palance, Tim Matheson (the vice president in The West Wing), and Peter Boyle (the dispacher in Taxi Driver, the monster in Young Frankenstein, and Ray's dad in Everybody Loves Raymond), and was directed by Richard Sarafian, who in his younger days had made cult road movie Vanishing Point. A lot of special effects money also seems to have been thrown at the film, although by today's standards it still looks pretty hokey. However, the fact that Richard Sarafian asked to be credited as 'Alan Smithee' hints that the film may have had a... shall we say 'troubled' production history.
Like you, I had never heard of Solar Crisis, but I came across it on top of a pile of DVDs at my parents' house, and was intrigued at the idea of a 1990 SF film starring Charlton Heston that I had never heard of. Could it be another overlooked cult movie like the 1980 SF B-movie Saturn 3 (Kirk Douglas, Harvey Keitel, Farrah Fawcett and a killer robot - what's not to like)? So I borrowed it and - last night - watched it.
The other thing that had intrigued me was the premise - Earth is facing destruction at the hands of a monstrous solar flare. To divert it harmlessly away from Earth, a crew of astronauts must pilot a massive bomb into the heart of the sun. Sound familiar? That's because it's - give or take - the premise of Danny Boyle's 2007 SF film Sunshine. The idea that it had been done 17 years earlier with Chuck 'From My Cold Dead Hands' Heston sounded amazing. However, the similarities pretty much end there, and it turns out that there's a good reason you've not seen this movie. It is... well, not exactly terrible, just not terribly good.
So let's start with the plot - it's all over the place. The main 'carry the bomb to the sun' plot plays second fiddle to confusing shenanigans back on Earth. Tim Matheson, captain of the Helios - the ship with the bomb - has unresolved dad issues both with his son - who absconds from military academy - and his dad, the Admiral (Chuck Heston). Meanwhile religious corporate baddie Peter Boyle reckons that the solar flare won't happen, and therefore (?) for no particular reason tries to sabotage the mission, by employing a hitman who looks like Billy Idol, who botches the assassination of a key henchman who then goes on the lam. Henchman, military cadet, corporate goons and military rescue squad all collide in some Mad Max-style badlands area where crazy old man Jack Palance turns out to be ex military and saves said cadet. Oh, did I mention the sexy cyborg (Annabel Schofield, apparently channelling Liz Hurley) who gets reprogrammed by Billy Idol to sabotage the Helios...? The confusing plot unfortunately rubs shoulders with risible dialogue (even for an 80s - or nearly 80s - SF movie), a smart alec talking bomb that seems to have escaped from Dark Star, and gratuitous female nudity (Annabel even gets that staple of 80s movies - a random shower scene). Jack Palance isn't really trying, Charlton Heston does gravitas very well but doesn't get enough screen time, and the whole thing ends in a strange 2001-style 'Stargate' sequence as the sexy cyborg ovecomes her reprogramming and sets the controls for the heart of the sun.
As SF turkeys go, though, this one is definitely M&S hand-reared free range turkey, and you're welcome to borrow the DVD.

I watched it as a double bill with the aforementioned Sunshine, just for comparison. The truth is, though, there just is no comparison. Danny Boyle directs with a sense of wonder at the sheer scale of everything, the acting is fine, and the plot is pretty tight and concentrates quite rightly on the whole 'getting the bomb to the sun' thing. I hadn't enjoyed Sunshine very much when I first watched it, and this was the first time I had seen it in several years, but the plot actually made much more sense the second time around, aside from the central conceit, which doesn't make sense in physics terms (even a fission bomb 'the size of Manhattan' would be a mere drop in the ocean on something the scale of the sun). Still, that bothered me less this time and I enjoyed the atmospherics, and the way staring into the sun drove people to madness. I actually ended up wishing more could have been made of that, especially what had happened to the previous Icarus mission - something of an Event Horizon-type thing as they put the pieces together (but with less religious mumbo jumbo). But the main distraction for me was Cillian Murphy, whose character looked too much like Professor Brian Cox, and I kept on expecting him to break into a soft Lancashire accent and big cheesy grin, and have a large, exciteable Irishman appear alongside him to crack a few jokes. But yes, I think I can see what Mark Kermode likes about Sunshine now.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Whatever happened to cyberpunk?

So here it is - the year 2016. I'm living in the future that I could only imagine back in the 1980s. But how does it measure up?
Personal cyberdeck?


Domestic robot?


All transactions conducted in Eurodollars?

Ehhh... kind of. A bit.

Direct brain interface for my cyberdeck?

Not so much.

Cybernetic arm with concealed shotgun?

Seriously, WTF? Why would you even want that anyway?

But hang on... what's this...?

How the hell did we not manage to imagine mobile phones?

The future is a strange place, but I think I kind of like it.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Hard to be a Soviet

It is a commonplace that science fiction tells you far more about the time and place it was written in than any potential vision of the future, but this was brought home to me recently by reading two very different and yet similar books. The first, Almuric, was written by Robert E Howard, writer of the Conan stories and part of H.P. Lovecraft's 'weird fiction' circle in the 1920s, while the second, Hard To Be A God, by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, was from a very different time and place - not the sunny, macho post-pioneer cowboy world of frontier 20s Texas, but instead the rather drabber and more circumscribed world of the 1960s Soviet Union. However, both deal with the idea of a visitor from a technological Earth being dropped into a more primitive culture and having to make his (and in both cases it is a he) way in it.

The stranger from our world, or a future version of it, journeying in a more 'primitive' culture is of course a well-worn trope of science fiction, running from Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court (written back in 1889 as a satire on the romanticised Victorian pre-Raphaelite view of the Middle Ages) to Iaian M Banks' 1998 novel Inversions, but the treatments couldn't be more different. Almuric is a so-called 'planetary romance' in the mold of Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars series, which Almuric is, to be blunt, a poor pastiche of. However, for all of its alien (though generally humanoid) window dressing, its roots, like John Carter's, lie solidly in the 'white man has adventures in the wilds' genre that can be traced back to Kipling and Rider Haggard - The Man Who Would Be King and King Solomon's Mines. The main difference is that while the colonialist Boys' Own adventure stories tended to emphasise the primitiveness of African (and for Martian we can pretty much read African) tribes, Robert Howard was clearly much more sympathetic to what he viewed as the more 'authentic' nature of tribal existence, unmediated by the trappings of 'civilisation', and his hero, Esau Cairn, is another of his burly man-mountains in the mold of Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane and Francis X Gordon, who is out of place in his own world and finds the more existential challenges of the wilderness more to his taste. Indeed, there is more than a touch of the Western about Almuric, albeit the kind of Western that Hollywood didn't start making until the 1960s, where the Native Americans stop being simply villains - something akin to A Man Called Horse, for example, and Almuric is as much about Cairn's acceptance into the tribe he finds himself among as it is a story of rescuing women in peril and two-fisted action. Howard was growing up in a time and place when the Frontier was still within living memory and he clearly had a respect and fascination for tribal culture based on real world 'Indians', but his books are also something of a paean to that frontier world of his grandfathers, fast disappearing in his time as America industrialised. Like Cairn, he would rather have been transported into that world than have to put up with the new America of automobiles and office work.

Written from the vantage point of the post-colonial era, Hard To Be A God has no such romantic view of 'primitive' cultures. Life in the Arkanar Kingdom on a world light years from Earth is nasty, brutish and short, and fastidious Russian scientist Anton, posing as nobleman Don Rumata, is continually repelled by its smells and cruelties at the same time that he worries that they are rubbing off on him. Anton is a product of a socialist, utopian future Earth (the so-called Noon Universe, which the Strugatskys used as the setting for several novels), which is what we would now call a 'post scarcity society', and a model for Gene Rodenberry's benevolent United Federation of Planets in Star Trek, and more particularly The Culture from Iaian M Banks' stories. But its sociologists, working under cover while trying to gently push the medieval society of Arkanar towards a Renaissance, cannot work out why their wonderfully Soviet-sounding 'Basis Theory' does not seem to account for Arkanar's resistance to progress, which causes the society to move backwards through a fascistic authoritarian coup into a theocratic dictatorship. All they can do is save a few philosophers, poets and intellectuals from the pyres. The book is dense with questions about free will, human nature, and the responsibility of more advanced societies towards those less so - allow them to make the same mistakes that we did, or intervene and remove their own sense of agency? But it also serves as a kind of allegory of Stalinism and the chilling effect it had on the intellectual life of the USSR; the book was published in 1964, when Kruschev was still in the process of 'de-Stalinising' the country. Like real life (and very much unlike Almuric), Hard To Be A God offers no easy answers to the questions it poses, but it may be one of the most interesting SF books I have read in a very long time.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Nearer, my God, to Thee

There is a big hoo-hah in the news this morning about the world's largest cruise ship arriving in Southampton. The BBC put one of their business correspondents aboard to ask about payback times, cruise ship sizes, passenger demographics and all that. But what I found frustrating is that he didn't ask what I have always felt is the most fundamental question about these gigantic ships - are they actually, you know, safe?

Putting aside the fact that being stuck in a hotel/shopping mall with 8,500 other people for several days, probably in a cabin with no window, would be a personal vision of purgatory, 8,500 crew and passengers is a staggering number of people to be literally all in the same boat. That's nearly four times as big as the Titanic, and twice the size of the Costa Concordia, which sank four years ago amid some pretty chaotic scenes. The Costa Concordia's ill-fated captain made one crucial decision, which was to steer the ship for shore. That meant that although the ship began to list too heavily for the lifeboats to be lowered on one side, most passengers were able to swim to safety, and because the ship settled on the seabed with part of it still above water, others could just cling to the ship and wait for rescue. As a result, 'only' 32 lives were lost.

Now imagine a huge mega-cruise ship like the Harmony Of The Seas in the mid-Atlantic, perhaps on fire, or suffering some other catastrophe that requires evacuation. Well, presumably there at least are sufficicent lifeboats for everyone to get into, right? Wrong. The ship carries 18 lifeboats, and each is rated to carry up to 370 people. That is 6,660 people, on a ship which can carry 8,700. Can they actually do that? Well, yes, apparently they can. The rules on these things are set by the International Maritime Organisation's SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea) convention, which says that a ship need only carry sufficient lifeboats to hold 75% of the crew and passengers, the rest can be dealt with by (inflatable) life rafts. Well, oookay, I guess - but it's funny how no-one ever mentions these kind of things in the brochure. What's also not mentioned is that SOLAS specifies a maximum size of lifeboat of 150 people, and the Harmony had to get special permission to have lifeboats that can hold so many, otherwise it would have had to carry 45 lifeboats. Can 16 crew get 370 people into a lifeboat during an emergency? That remains to be seen. SOLAS requires that a vessel can be evacuated in 30 minues from the 'Abandon Ship' order being given. It took five hours to get everyone off the Costa Concordia, with numerous shortcomings highlighted in crew training. And larger ships also run with larger passenger: crew ratios; on the 1960s-era QE1 it was 1: 1.8, on the Costa Concordia 1: 2.8. On the Harmony of the Seas it is 1: 3.2.

And even given all that, that still means that there are over 2,000 people, probably quite a lot of them elderly - we're talking about a cruise ship here - who can't fit in the lifeboats at all anyway. They need to be able to get off a 16-deck ship into little inflatable boats bobbing in the water. How? I'm glad you asked. The answer is via a slide which unfurls from canisters on the evacuation deck, a bit like the escape slide on an airliner. But an airliner on the ground only needs to get people down 20 feet - the deck of the mega cruise ship is 50 feet or more above the water. That's a long way to fall, and people do get injured in such escapes. Serious questions have been asked about whether this is a suitable way of getting off a huge liner - fine in calm conditions in the Mediterranean or Caribbean but not necessarily workable in heavy seas. Caribbean Cruise Lines calls this a "holistic evacuation procedure", but the whole thing sounds very dicey to me.

The IMO said it was taking the Costa Concordia sinking "very seriously",  but the new generation of mega-cruise ships seems to be pushing at the boundaries of what is permissible or indeed advisable by current safety legislation. It was that kind of exceptionalism that led to the Titanic setting sail from Southampton with only enough lifeboats to carry half the crew and passengers, because putting more on would have 'spoiled the look of the ship', and because the existing regulations had been designed for smaller vessels and hadn't caught up with the then-new generation of mega-liners. Plus ca change.