Saturday, December 12, 2009

Random Linkage 12/12/09

Reddish Dust and Ice Migration Darken Saturn’s Moon Iapetus
'New views of Saturn’s moon Iapetus accompany papers that detail how reddish dust swept up on the moon’s orbit around Saturn and migrating ice can explain the bizarre, yin-yang-patterned surface.'

Phobos and Deimos Together At Last!
'ESA's Mars Express orbiter took images last month of Mars two moons, Phobos and Deimos. This is the first time the moons have been imaged together in high resolution, but as Emily Lakdawalla points out on Planetary Blog, not the first time the two have been imaged together: the Spirit rover did it back in 2005! But these new image definitely provide a ‘wow’ factor, as well as helping to validate and refine existing orbit models of the two moons.'

Super-Massive Black Holes Observed at the Center of Galaxies
'An international team of scientists has observed four super-massive black holes at the center of galaxies, which may provide new information on how these central black hole systems operate.'

Galaxy Collision Switches on Black Hole
'This composite image of data from three different telescopes shows an ongoing collision between two galaxies, NGC 6872 and IC 4970. X-ray data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory is shown in purple, while Spitzer Space Telescope's infrared data is red and optical data from ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) is colored red, green and blue.'

Mars Exploration Rovers Update: Spirit Turns Wheels, Opportunity Rests at Rare Martian Rock
'The Mars Exploration Rovers managed to make history and uncover history in November – and that put both Spirit and Opportunity in the planetary exploration spotlight during the 71st month of an overland expedition that was supposed to be a three-month tour.'
(Opportunity roves on, but it looks like poor Spirit may be permanently stuck now it's lost use of another wheel.)

Bacteria Engineered to Turn Carbon Dioxide Into Liquid Fuel
'Global climate change has prompted efforts to drastically reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas produced by burning fossil fuels.
'In a new approach, researchers from the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have genetically modified a cyanobacterium to consume carbon dioxide and produce the liquid fuel isobutanol, which holds great potential as a gasoline alternative. The reaction is powered directly by energy from sunlight, through photosynthesis.'

Dinosaurs diversified before spreading around the world
'Fossils found in the US state of New Mexico are providing strong evidence that dinosaurs originated in what is now South America, and had already evolved into three main groups before spreading around the world.'


In 1912, a pencil-sharpener salesman named Edgar Rice Burroughs published in a short novel ‘Under the Moons of Mars’ in All-Story Magazine. Republished in longer form in 1917, as A Princess of Mars, it was the first in the Barsoom series, kickstarted the planetary romance genre, and imprinted science fiction with a set of primitive but deeply felt tropes. James Cameroon’s Avatar is nothing less than a return to the primal urges of full-blown planetary romance in the style of Burroughs, Ralph Milne Farley, Homer Eon Flint and Otis Adelbert Kline: a glorious romp through the wonders and perils of an alien world, and a love story featuring a nearly naked alien princess. If you were a fifteen year old kid living in the 1970s and grokking sf, Tarzan of the Apes, and prog rock, a glimpse of Avatar in big-screen 3D and SurroundSound would blow your everloving mind.

Let’s get the story out of the way first. It’s 2154, a mining colony on Pandora, the Earth-like moon of a gas giant orbiting Alpha Centauri-A, source of a vital mineral, unobtanium (a nice, geeky joke: we could have done with a few more). Jake Sully is a paraplegic ex-Marine who volunteers to take the place of his dead twin brother as a driver of an avatar, a hybrid creature fettled up from human DNA and the DNA of the Na’vi, the blue-skinned ten-foot tall natives of Pandora. Sully is part of the science team, led by Sigourney Weaver’s Grace Augustine, that’s using the avatars to study and negotiate with the Na’vi; after his avatar is separated from the others, Sully encounters a Na’vi female, Neytiri, and is accepted into her clan, a major scientific coup. But Sully’s loyalty is torn between the scientists and the Na’vi, and former Marine Colonel Miles Quaritch, head of the colony’s security, who plans to evict the Na’vi clan from their home, which inconveniently sits on a motherlode of unobtanium. Quaritch promises Sully that if he can deal with the Na’vi, he’ll get treatment to restore use of his legs; but Sully has fallen for the Na’vi way of life, and with Neytiri . . .

Well, you get the idea. Like the pulp planetary romances, Avatar’s story is achingly simple and laid on with broad strokes. In the first half Sully gets to learn survival skills; in the second, he gets to use them; threaded through his pilgrim’s progress is a plunkingly obvious allegory about greed and uncontrolled capitalism destroying nature’s harmony, and a love story across the divide between two species. The bond between Sully and Na’vi is undeniably affecting, in parts, but it’s also in parts silly and sentimental, the characterisation and dialogue (especially Colonel Quaritch’s - GI Joe had better lines) is basic, the plot twists are utterly predictable, and the film lacks the heart and human qualities of smaller scale sf films like Moon or District 9. But what you take home from Avatar isn’t so much the story as the setting. And the setting, and its rendering, is amazing. Stunning.

There’s a nice scene near the beginning of this very long film where Sully first drives the body of his avatar, and realises that he can walk again, and breaks free from the technicians and the base and joyfully canters through a garden of native plants: that sense of freedom and awe is evoked over and again as the camera floats and zooms through Pandora’s forest. The 3D is crystal-clear and Cameron seamlessly blends live action characters, CG motion-capture characters and CG scenery, using a computer-camera system that allows him to zoom in and twist around anybody and anything. And Pandora itself is the best and most fully-detailed rendering of an alien world ever seen, a forest reimagined as a coral reef, with drifting medusa-like seeds, barracuda-like wolves, shark-like tigers, hammerheaded buffalo. . . In short, an entire, self-consistent biome packed with eye kicks and explored in beautiful and thrilling set pieces: Na’vi leading Sully through the luminescent galaxy of the night-time forest; the ascent of a chain of floating rocks to a floating mountain peak (straight from one of Roger Dean’s album covers); an aerial battle amongst those same floating mountains between helicopters and lumbering transports and a flock of warriors mounted on manta-ray dragons. . . And so on, and so on.

Sure, Cameron has spent enough money to reforest half of the Amazon Basin on a film with a by-the-numbers story that mixes tropes from ancient pulp fiction and the greatest hits from his previous work. But it also conjures, over and again, that heady, full-blown, good old-fashioned sense of wonder: it is, shamelessly, gleefully, a science fiction epic. What it isn’t, is a groundbreaking film, in the way that 2001: A Space Odyssey or Star Wars were. But it is a major envelope-pushing advance in terms of what is now possible. Because what’s possible now, thanks to the techniques Cameron has developed, is that anything we can think of can be thrown up on the cinema screen. Think about that: anything at all.

(Xposted to Pyr-o-mania)

Friday, December 11, 2009


I used to be a scientist, and (on the principle of write about what you’re interested in rather than write about what you know) a fair number of my novels feature scientists. Here’s one, in The Secret of Life, thinking about science:
There are no mysteries, Mariella thinks, only unrevealed truths. If people will only do a little work, will subject themselves to a little discipline, a little effort, then they too can understand, they too will be amazed not by mystery but by truth. But they don't. Science has built a vast edifice of thought that reaches out to the furthest ends of the Universe, all the way back in time to the first femtosecond of the Universe's creation, all the way forward to matter's final end in the dissolution of protons, a hundred billion years from now. A cathedral of thought built by the cooperation of hundreds of thousands of minds, the greatest achievement of humanity. But most will not even acknowledge it, much less try to understand it.

She still remembers the casual slights and sneers of certain pompous arts students at Cambridge. The moneyed as oblivious to their wealth as fish to water, interested only in maintaining the status quo, with braying upper middle class students their eager collaborators. Proud in their ignorance of science, yet scornful of those who were not interested in the minutia of Renaissance art, opera, or the intricacies of their social seasons. Mariella knows now that their scorn was based on fear. To them, scientists are useful but dangerous, and so must be kept in their place, like Morlocks in the engine-room of the world. And most people take their cue from their leaders, believe that science is a conspiracy only the initiated few can understand, something to be feared. It is partly the fault of mediocre scientists, of course, who react to criticism like spoiled priests fearful of unfrocking, but it is mostly the fault of those who in their ignorance set themselves as the legislators of science, and those, their prejudices set in stone, who have declared themselves to be its moral superiors.
Now, Mariella has a massive chip on her shoulder (she would say she’s evenly balanced, with massive chips on both shoulders), but she also has a point. I was reminded of her the other day, while reading this interesting interview with sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard on the psychology of climate change denial:
‘Any community organizer knows that if you want people to respond to something, you need to tell them what to do, and make it seem do-able. Stanford University psychologist Jon Krosnick has studied this, and showed that people stop paying attention to climate change when they realize there’s no easy solution. People judge as serious only those problems for which actions can be taken.’
The problems Norgaard refers to are the kind most often featured in SF stories and novels, and the kind of science deployed to solve them is too often highly simplified. You know the kind of thing: lone geniuses who go against the grain of current thinking; oddballs who stumble upon a new paradigm, like a metal-detecting hobbyist lucking out on a hoard of Roman gold; science advanced by epiphanies that explode with the frequency of flashguns at a film premiere (and in films, often require really fast typing to defuse some last-minute knucklebiting threat involving overflux in the intertubes that would otherwise create deadly feedback in everyone’s hypothalami).

But most science is mostly a cooperative, slow, patient accretive process. Even stone geniuses like Newton famously acknowledged that they couldn’t have got where they did without standing on the shoulders of giants (Newton, who was not the nicest of men, may have been poking fun at his height-challenged rival Leibniz, but it’s still a valid point). And an awful lot of science isn’t about the sudden apprehension of a universal truth, but the gainsaying of alternate explanations for an observed phenomenon or fact - such as this nugget of recent research, which doesn’t prove that methane on Mars (which is constantly destroyed by chemical processes in Martian soil, so must also be constantly produced by some as yet unknown agency) was produced by Martian bacteria, but eliminates the idea that it is created by passage of meteorite through the Martian atmosphere, making the possibility of the bacterial origin of methane slightly more likely.

Of course, this kind of science isn’t much use in the construction of stories in which heroes slice through the Gordian knot of some world-threatening problem, or make some world-changing discovery. But it’s the kind of science that serious SF should at least acknowledge - just as any kind of serious fiction should acknowledge the complexity of the happening world, and the knotty and often ambiguous moral choices real people have to make.

Heroes simplify the world. Sometimes this is useful and good, at those moments in history when a binary choice - black or white, yes or no - must be made. But many problems - like climate change - aren’t easily solved. The information is complicated and the choices we have to make aren’t easy: none of them will allow us to continue to live in the way we’ve been living. Easier then, more comforting, to pretend the problem doesn’t exist, or that it has nothing to do with us, or it can be solved - at a stroke - by brute geoengineering. But not necessarily useful, or right. Not science, but science fantasy.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Now It Can Be Told

Cowboy Angels is to be published in the US by Pyr, probably late 2010. I'm very pleased, of course - especially as its secret title is Look For America and a fair chunk of it riffs off the fun and games of the Bush 2 era.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (7)

Writers who locate themselves outside the science-fiction genre tend to employ the dystopian mode when they write about the future. They don’t think of it as a real place - somewhere you can get to from here, somewhere that can be plausibly mapped and explored, somewhere that’s as varied and contradictory as the present. No, for them it’s a convenient blank screen on which they can project burlesques and dreadful warnings about the awful consequences of technological progress or the failure of a cherished ideology or the triumph of its antithesis. A place where the fears of the present are scaled up to nightmarish proportions.

In Britain, from the Second World War onwards, the best dystopian writing has been inflected with black comedy. Its futures are as seedy and down-at-heel; its tyrannies may be ruthless and absolute, but it’s underlain by the kind of petty rule-making and make-do-and-mend bureaucratic muddle that infected every British institution during and after the war. In the end, there isn’t much difference between 1984's Ministry of Truth and Brazil’s Ministry of Information (or, come to that, the real Ministry of Information).

Case in point: Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome: A Love Story. First published in 1941, its depiction of how the lives of the inhabitants of a sleepy Gloucestershire village are shattered when the neighbouring aerodrome takes control combines a comic coming-of-age story with an allegory about fascism. The narrator, Roy, is an orphan raised by the village’s Rector and his wife. Roy enjoys the uncomplicated life of the village, revolving around pub, church, and the feudal authority of the Squire, but also admires the aerodrome’s power and ruthless efficiency, and this ambivalence is exposed and reflected in every twist of the complex, soap-operatic plot. After the Rector is shot by Roy’s friend the Flight-Lieutenant during a machine-gun demonstration at the village Agricultural Show (‘I say, Roy, something rather rotten has happened. I’m afraid I’ve potted your old man.’), Roy is revolted by the brusque unfeeling funeral address by the aerodrome’s Air Vice-Marshall (imagine Peter Cook playing General Jack D. Ripper), but takes advantage of situation to get married to his sweetheart. Roy’s happiness is short-lived: he’s rapidly entangled in a love-triangle involving himself, his wife, and the Flight Lieutenant that’s complicated by the secret of his origins - which is also the key to the ideology of the Air Vice-Marshall, who takes Roy under his wing after Roy, at the urging of his sweetheart, joins up.

As Michael Moorcock points out in his introduction to the current Vintage edition of the novel, the violent and arrogant behaviour of the airmen in The Aerodrome is clearly modelled on Nazi Blackshirts, but the novel may also have been written in reaction the H.G. Wells’s Things to Come, in which global peace is maintained by a technocratic elite inspired by a mysterious airman. But although Warner was deeply suspicious of claims that science could solve all human problems, he was also a committed left-winger who at Oxford was part of W.H Auden and C. Day Lewis’s circle, and his portrayal of the village’s bucolic life is not suffused with the kind of rosy nostalgia peddled by reactionaries who love to quote Orwell out of context. There’s much drunkenness and casual violence, and the villagers accept the authority of the aerodrome with the same baffled, slightly resentful passivity with which they accepted the feudal authority of the Squire; Warner convincingly argues that it’s this very English quality (‘Mustn’t grumble.’) that makes us peculiarly susceptible to totalitarian rule.

After Roy joins the aerodrome’s cadres, the Air Vice-Marshall gives a long speech that parodies not only the power fantasies of German National Socialism, but also the kind of the technocratic solutions proposed by Wells and other left-wing intellectuals in the 1930s (or, indeed, a troubling number of science fiction novels):
‘Remember that we expect from you conduct of quite a different order from that of the mass of mankind. Your actions, when off duty, may appear and indeed should appear wholly irresponsible. Your purpose - to escape the bondage of time, to obtain mastery over yourselves, and thus over your environment - must never waver. You will discover, if you do not know already, from the course which have been arranged for you, the necessity for what we in this Force are in process of becoming, a new and more adequate race of men.
‘Please do not imagine, gentlemen, that I am speaking wildly. I mean precisely what I say and in course of time you will come to understand me more than you do at present... Science will show you that in our species the period of physical evolution is over. There remains the evolution, or rather the transformation, of consciousness and will, the escape from time, the mastery of self, a task which has in fact been attempted with some success by individuals at various periods, but which is now to be attempted by us all.’
There’s a great deal of calculating advice about dealing with women, too, which Roy fortunately ignores. The human mess of a second love-triangle, involving Roy, the Flight-Lieutenant, and Eusticia, the wife of the aerodrome’s chief scientist, and his discovery of the circumstances of his birth and the identity of his parents, brings him to a crux in which he rejects the Air Vice-Marshall’s ideology:
I began to see that this life, in spite of its drunkenness and its inefficiency, was wider and deeper than the activity in which we were constricted by the iron compulsion of the Air Vice-Marshal's ambition. It was a life whose very vagueness concealed a wealth of opportunity, whose uncertainty called for adventure, whose aspects were innumerable and varied as the changes of light and colour throughout the year. It was a life whose unwieldiness was the consequence of its immensity. No skill could precisely calculate the effects of any action, and all action was dangerous.
At the end, after the Air Vice-Marshall’s dreams of power are curtailed by a very human act of revenge, and Roy realises that although the new order has been broken, the old order could never be restored. Like all good dystopian novels, The Aerodrome doesn’t describe in any kind of detail the new world that rises out of the ashes of the old, but its last pages, and its thrillingly beautiful last line, exactly catch the postwar idealism that swept Churchill from office and put in his place Attlee’s Labour government, which promised to build a New Jerusalem on the ruins of the old order. That it didn’t succeed, (although it did, amongst other things, create the National Health Service), is also prefigured in Warner’s fine dystopian allegory.
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