Posts Tagged ‘Science fiction’

Star Wars

December 12, 2018

Not long ago, I saw the original Star Wars for the first time in many years. What I found most interesting about this movie is how well it stands up after all these years. The plot is a little silly with holes you can drive an X-Wing Fighter through, but so what? Star Wars is still a lot of fun to watch. The special effects still look impressive, not even a little dated or cheesy, as one might expect after forty years. George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic was truly a master of producing special effects in that primitive pre-computer generated effects era. For this reason, I really wish that George Lucas had not decided to enhance the original Star Wars trilogy with digital effects.

The digital additions didn’t really advance the plot and weren’t much of an improvement on the original. It was interesting to watch the scene with the confrontation between Han Solo and Jabba the Hutt, which was cut from the original. The scene did help to establish Han Solo’s mercenary character and his motive for taking Ben and Luke’s commission to transport them to Alderaan, but it wasn’t essential. The computer generated Jabba the Hutt somehow didn’t look very realistic. Jabba didn’t seem to fit in the scene.

Changing the confrontation between Han and Greedo so that Greedo shot first ruined the scene. Han Solo was supposed to be somewhat amoral, in the beginning, growing more altruistic as the trilogy progressed. Changing the scene changed the arc of Solo’s character development.

However, even if the changes and additions had been an improvement, I still would have preferred that George Lucas had not made them. The special effects of the original Star Wars movies were truly ground breaking. Before Star Wars, science fiction movies had always looked rather cheap, no matter how much money was spent on the special effects, they never really looked good. 2001: A Space Odyssey was an exception, but it had Stanley Kubrick as director. It didn’t help that science fiction was not taken very seriously as either literature or as cinema. Science fiction movies were all too often relegated to a low budget ghetto to be enjoyed by children and nerds. Star Wars changed that. Yes, the plot was thin and it was kind of a kids’ movie, but the awesome special effects showed what could be done. Star Wars made science fiction a mainstream genre. When George Lucas went back and added in the digital enhancements, it was as if he was denigrating his accomplishments. It is as if D. W. Griffith had gone back and put a sound track in Birth of a Nation.

Watching Star Wars as an adult for the nth time can never be the same as the first time I saw it as a child, particularly after seeing the sequels and prequels. It is harder to fear Darth Vader as an evil villain when you know that behind the mask is a weary old man who hates what he has become. Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi seems to be less of a noble mentor and more of a cunning manipulator when you know he lied to Luke Skywalker about his father. (Yes Ben, that was a lie, not a truth from a certain point of view.) Even the whole premise of the movie can be called into question. Was the destruction of the Jedi by Darth Vader and the Emperor really such a bad thing? The prequels show the Jedi as being more than a little arrogant and narrow-minded. Maybe it is not such a good idea to rely on a small elite of people who happen to be blessed with a high midi-chlorian count. Is the rule of Emperor Palpatine really a bad thing? The Republic that preceded his rule was shown to be corrupt and ineffective. Maybe, from a certain point of view, the Empire stands for law and order and the Rebellion is a terrorist organization. After all, George Lucas said the Ewoks were inspired by the Viet-Cong, meaning perhaps that they were genocidal fanatics just as the real life Viet Cong were. That would make the Stormtroopers the Americans, the good guys.

Then there is the similarity between the award scene at the end and the Nazi rally depicted in Triumph of the Will

But now, I am overthinking it. Star Wars has never born close examination, either of its politics or its science, and George Lucas is not as profound a thinker as he would like to pretend. Star Wars is flashy, mindless fun. This is, by no means, a criticism. There is certainly a place for flashy, mindless entertainment. In fact, I think one of the problems with Hollywood these days is that they are taking themselves too seriously. They are more intent on preaching left-wing politics than with making movies people actually want to see. Even the Star Wars franchise has fallen victim to this plague of political correctness. We need more of the original Star Wars.

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A Maze of Stars

May 23, 2016

I found A Maze of Stars by John Brunner to be an intriguing and slightly unusual book. The book does not seem to read like a novel with a continuous story from beginning to end, so much as a series of short stories or vignettes. The story takes place in the Arm of Stars, the last section of our galaxy to be colonized by humanity. A vast sentient Ship was built to travel along the Arm of Stars, seeding each habitable planet with the colonists who chose to settle there. After its great mission was complete, the Ship was supposed to stand by and monitor the progress of the colonies and rescue any population that was in danger.

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Such was the plan. Instead the Ship found itself to be cast back and forth through time, compelled to retrace its journey along the Arm of Stars again and again centuries after the settlement of the Arm, observing but not contacting like an interstellar Flying Dutchman. At the end of each journey, the Ship travels through time again, emerging at the first planet it visited at a seemingly random time. In A Maze of Stars, the Ship finds itself at the earliest of its voyages, only 500 years after it seeded the colonies. The Ship travels from planet to planet with some knowledge of each planet’s future history, though there is much that remains hidden from the Ship. Some of the colonies have been successful, with a few even beginning to build star ships of their own. Many more are surviving with difficulty and more than a few are failures, the colonists destroyed by the hostile conditions of the planet they colonised. The Ship can recognise that some apparent successes will falter and fail, while some failures will recover. Occasionally, the Ship is able to exploit a loophole in its programming and take along a passenger on its travels. By the time the Ship reaches the end of its path, it learns why it was built and why it is sentenced to retrace its path again and again.

There is one issue raised by A Maze of Stars that I have not seen anywhere else in science fiction or nonfictional speculations about colonizing extra-terrestrial worlds. No life form on Earth either as an individual or a species exists in isolation. Every type of plant or animal lives in a complex ecosystem, composed of not just the obvious predators and sources of food, but also on a microscopic level with the bacteria than live around us and within us. Every form of life on Earth is to some extent depended on a vast web of interactions that are not always well understood. What would happen if some organisms are removed from that web and transplanted to a world with its own native lifeforms? Would the newcomers compete with the native life. Would alien organisms be toxic to creatures from Earth? What about the ecosystem of bacteria that each of us carries around with us and helps with our digestion? Could we maintain the proper balance in an alien world? Scientists have also recently learned that it is possible for DNA to be transferred between different species by viruses, and that these transfers have helped the process of evolution along. What if human colonists pick up alien DNA? Will they be able to remain human. The attempts of the various colonists to protect themselves against  and adjust to the alien environments they have found themselves in is an important backdrop to the story of each planet the Ship visits and is a major factor in the success or failure of each colony, and the questions raised about the future of human development make the book worth reading.

 

 

Flowers for Algernon

August 27, 2015

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes is one of those books which every literate person in America should be familiar with, at least to the extent of knowing the basic plot. It has been taught in schools, and has been challenged for being inappropriate. Flowers for Algernon has won awards and been adapted for the television, radio, and film. There aren’t many science fiction novels which have had the kind of influence that Flowers for Algernon has had.

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The plot is straightforward enough. Charlie Gordon is a thirty-two year old retarded man who works in a bakery. All his life, he has desperately wanted to be smart. He gets his chance when he is selected to be the first human subject for an experimental technique for raising intelligence. This new procedure has already proved to be effective on a mouse named Algernon and the scientists have good reason to believe that it will be just as effective on a human being. The procedure is successful and soon Charlie is as far above average in IQ as he was below. Charlie discovers, however, that high intelligence is not without its own problems. He becomes bitter and anti-social when he learns that his “friends” at the bakery only liked him because they laughed at him and took advantage at him. The scientists he believed were geniuses turn out to be knowledgeable only in narrow fields. Charlie is as much as outsider with a genius level IQ as he was when he was retarded and this time he knows it. Worst of all, Charlie’s own research reveals that the success of the procedure is only temporary. He will lose his intelligence as quickly as he gained it. In the end, Charlie is back to the level he was at the start of the book, except perhaps a little wiser than he was even at his height. He can no longer understand the contribution he made to science but he at least regained the humanity he came near to losing, and he understands what it is to be smart a little better.

Daniel Keyes did a wonderful job conveying Charlie Gordon’s growth and decline through the medium of Charlie’s journals or progress reports that he is required to write as part of the experiment. The earliest entries show a naïve and simple Charlie with misspellings and grammatical mistakes. Charlie really doesn’t understand what is going on around him, yet he wants to be liked. People do like him, even his friends who laugh at him, because of his determination to learn as much as he can despite his limited intelligence. As Charlie gains in intelligence, his spelling and punctuation become more correct and he begins to use a more advanced vocabulary. He also begins to be less likable and more arrogant. As Charlie begins to revert to his earlier state, the language he uses in writing the progress reports also deteriorates. This last section of the book is heartbreaking and more than a little terrifying. There are few things that most people dread more than losing their minds. Even death is seen as preferable and fear of death is often really fear of oblivion or mindlessness. Keyes is very good at expressing Charlie’s dread and fear as he sinks back into subnormal intelligence.

Flowers for Algernon, then, is a book well worth rereading, or reading for the first time if you have somehow managed to avoid it all these years. The novel was published in 1966 and was an expansion of a short story Keyes wrote in 1958 so it may be somewhat dated. One hopes that people like Charlie Gordon are somewhat better treated today, though substitution intellectually challenged for retarded is not really an improvement if the people saying intellectually challenged still regard them as subhuman. These dated parts do not detract in the enjoyment of the book and are scarcely noticeable in a book surely to become a classic.

 

The Rolling Stones

May 5, 2015

The Rolling Stones Robert A Heinlein‘s story of the great American road trip updated for the space age. Like Heinlein’s other juvenile science fiction novels written in the 1950’s, The Rolling Stones is great fun to read and teaches the lessons in self-reliance, courage and rational thinking found in all of Heinlein’s books for young adults.

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The plot of the Rolling Stones is simple enough. Castor and Pollux Stone, two fifteen year old twins who are Loonies, lunar colonists, want to buy a used space ship so they can begin a career in interplanetary trade. They ask their father, former mayor Roger Stone, for their inheritance in advance, but he outright refuses, insisting that they need to complete their education. The other members of the family, his wife Dr. Edith Stone, older daughter Meade, younger son Lowell, or Buster, and Roger’s mother Hazel Meade Stone, a founding mother of the Lunar Free State, convince him to buy a larger space ship for the use of the whole family. Soon, the Stones are on a trip to Mars and then the Asteroid Belt. They encounter some problems, but are able to resolve them with careful thinking and ingenuity. At the end, the Stones are on their way to Saturn to see the rings.

This book was published in 1952, before any human being had gone to space and even before Sputnik, yet Heinlein was amazingly accurate in his descriptions of how space travel would actually work. Heinlein was an engineer and he clearly put a lot of thought and research into writing this book, perhaps more thought than many might bother with for a story aimed at young adults. The Stones do not just push a few buttons and head for Mars. They must  go through a take off procedure much like that of real space craft. They must carefully calculate the proper course and account for the orbits of the planets in order to get to their destination.

With all of that being said, it is interesting to note where Heinlein and other science fiction writers of his time got things wrong. In general it has proven far more expensive and difficult to establish a human presence beyond low earth orbit than anyone anticipated. Space is a more hostile environment than thought and the extended period of weightlessness experienced by the Stones on their trip would probably leave them crippled by the time they reached Mars, unless they managed to provide some sort of artificial gravity, perhaps by rotating their ship. The depictions of the planets in Heinlein’s juveniles is far out of date. Neither Mars nor Venus is habitable without extensive terraforming and there are no natives, alas. What is most remarkable for an engineer like Heinlein is the inability to predict the electronic and computer revolutions. The computers in Heinlein’s juveniles are still huge, room sized contraptions and the characters use slide rules to perform calculations. I imagine that when the time comes when families are able to take trips to other planets, there will be an app to calculate trajectories.

I said that The Rolling Stones was the story of a road trip, but it is also the story of the ever expanding frontier. Heinlein’s political and social views were often described as libertarian, but perhaps a more accurate label would be frontier. On the frontier, whether in the Old West or in space, people cannot wait for a distant government to solve their problems or take care of their needs. By the time the government even learns of their problems, they may be dead. The people on the frontier must learn to take care of themselves and once they have become used to taking care of themselves, it is hard for them to accept the idea that their betters in a distant capital are more capable of solving problems that they are. The frontier creates a political climate that emphasizes equality over hierarchy and individual freedom over regimentation. It may be that many of the problems America is currently facing, not least an ever more intrusive and lawless government and a ever shrinking personal sphere of individual freedoms, is precisely because we no longer have a frontier. If this is the case than the sooner we get up into space, the better.

Political musings aside, The Rolling Stones is an enjoyable story that can appeal to youngsters of any age.

Inferno

November 24, 2014

I absolutely love Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, since after reading this book for the first time, I felt encouraged to try out the original source for their story, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, surely one of greatest works of literature ever. While Niven and Pournelle’s Inferno doesn’t quite rank with Dante it is still an update of Dante that is wonderfully fun to read with a serious exploration of why Hell might exist.

 

 

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Allen Carpentier is a science fiction writer who falls out of a window during a convention. Since Carpentier is an agnostic, he is astonished to wake up in Hell where he meets a man named Benito who assures him that Hell is arranged just as Dante described it in the Inferno and that He knows the way out of Hell. Carpentier cannot believe that he is in Hell at first, he believes it to be an artifact created by advanced aliens for their amusement, but as he and Benito make their way through Hell and observe the punishments meted out to sinners, Carpentier has no choice but to concede that he is, indeed in Hell. Then he must wrestle with the problem of why God would create Hell. The punishments seem to be just, but far out of proportion. No sin however great could be worth eternal agony. In the end, he learns who Benito really is and begins to have some idea why Hell might be necessary.

 

The authors largely followed the path described by Dante updating the sins and punishments when it seemed advisable. Thus, polluters are found among the hoarders and wasters, politicians voting along party lines rather than what they believed good for the country among the traitors etc. Like Dante, Niven and Pournelle included their personal causes and pet peeves in the story, damning to Hell the people they seemed to particularly dislike, but then that is part of the fun.

Inferno is a great science fiction/fantasy novel, worth reading. After you are done with it, see if you can’t tackle Dante too.

 

The Taking

May 19, 2011

Dean Koontz has become one of my favorite writers in recent years. I enjoy the good, sympathetic heroes, the well-plotted stories, and the sense of humor found in all of his novels. I expected to really enjoy “The Taking”, but somehow I did not.  I don’t know why I couldn’t get into this book. It had all the features of a good Koontz novel, but somehow the parts did not come together for me. Maybe it was the deus ex machina ending in which the Aliens are revealed to be the Devil and his angels, here to sift the population of the Earth for Hell. Maybe, it was because The Taking was more a horror story than Koontz usual suspense stories. While reading The Taking, I did sometimes feel as if I were in a nightmare.

In all, the Taking is good, especially at the beginning, but it could have been so much better.


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