Thursday, August 09, 2018

News From Antarctica

Today is publication day for the mass-market paperback of Austral, my novel about a short but somewhat troublesome walk across the fjords, forests and ice fields of the Antarctic Peninsula in the not very distant and somewhat warmer future. Please do check it out.

Coincidentally, I received confirmation that Big Talk Productions have taken up an option to use Austral and a couple of associated short stories as the basis for a multi-season TV programme. This is a long way from actual production, of course. And given that most options don't pan out into actual programmes, this may be as far as it goes. Still, it's a very nice boost to my morale, especially given the timing.

Meanwhile, here's a short section of Antarctic history that didn't make it into the finished book, first published here in October last year.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Desert Island Books

One of the neat things I did as the guest of honour at the Satellite 6 convention last weekend was talk about my desert island books, in an interview with a format similar to the venerable Desert Island Discs radio programme. If I was cast away on a remote island in the tropics, what essential volumes would I take with me ? Here they are:

1) On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin (1859). I used to be a research biologist -- how could I not choose this, the most famous and most important book on biology yet published? Based on evidence gathered from his voyage on The Beagle and years of observations, ideas and experimental work in the years since, this is the keystone of Darwin's theory of evolution, explaining in beautifully lucid prose the simple principles by which the vast complex diversity of life on this planet developed. It was controversial when it was published, and is still in certain quarters, but has survived every challenge and test, and is one of science's greatest achievements.

2) The Adventure of Alyx, by Joanna Russ (1967 - 1970). Back in the formative years of my science fiction reading, in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, there were far more women working in the field than some would have you believe. Joanna Russ was one of the best, and although The Female Man is perhaps her finest novel, I have a soft spot for Alyx. Independent, clever, determined, adaptable, clear-minded, ready to mete out violence when it's needed -- in short, a typical hero of sword-and-sorcery stories, except that she's a woman. In the early stories collected here she's a barbarian working on the shady side of an ancient Hellenic milieu, much like Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (who are mentioned glancingly in one of the stories). In the short novel Picnic on Paradise, having been accidentally scooped up by archaeologists from the far future, she's tasked with escorting bunch of hapless tourists across a war-torn planet. Scornful of the blandly pleasant utopia in which she finds herself, she's the original of scores of kick-ass heroines, redeemed from cliche by Russ's sharp prose and observations. If you want to know why so many of the protagonists in my novels are women, here's a major reason.

3) Pavane, by Keith Roberts (1968). At age 13 or so, I found the US paperback edition of Roberts's masterpiece in a local jumble sale. I have no idea how it got there -- accident, luck, fate -- but it instantly became one of my favourite books. It's set in an alternate history where Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated and the Roman Catholic Church regained control of Britain and the development and use of technology. A patchwork of stories develop a portrait of England where wolves and a hidden race of Old Ones still roam forests, messages are transmitted through chains of semaphore towers, the printing press is banned, the church uses the inquisition to suppress the spread of clandestine knowledge, and rebellion is slowly growing. It's a haunting, detailed portrait of Deep England and lives straining against the fetters of power: Roberts's best work, and the best alternate history yet written. My alternate history novel, Pasquale's Angel, in which the great engineer Leonardo Da Vinci kickstarts the industrial revolution a couple of centuries early, is in part a mirror-image homage.

4) Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy (1985). Sub-titled The Evening Redness in the West, a major theme of McCarthy's novel, based on historical events, is man's propensity for war and gleeful ruin. Two characters, the unlettered Kid, and an all-knowing Judge, join the Glanton gang of scalphunters that murder their way along the Mexican-US border. Only the Kid and the Judge survive, until a final encounter years later. Unsparing descriptions of violence and the vast and unforgiving landscapes of the American West are vividly conveyed in McCarthy's sparse Biblical prose; history is revisioned as a fantastic nightmare from which which reason struggles to wake. Widely praised as McCarthy's best novel, and one of the best American novels of the twentieth century it's a challenging benchmark that I admire intensely. It isn't exactly an influence, but it is one of the books I dip into when my inspiration needs a stiffener.

5) Hav, by Jan Morris (omnibus volume collecting Last Letters From Hav (1985) and Hav (2006)). Jan Morris is best known for her travel writing; this linked pair of novels are an outsider's exploration of the Mediterranean principality of Hav, where West and East coexist in a city whose deep history is underpinned by a variety of secrets and unique customs. The first novel chronicles the author's attempts to penetrate Hav's mysteries; the second her return to a city despoiled by revolution and the intrusion of the instruments of late-stage capitalism, yet where stubborn elements of its strangeness have resisted change. A fantasy venue populated by lovingly-drawn eccentrics that holds up a mirror to our own world and its colonial 'global culture'; a brilliant, detailed piece of world building.

6) The Collected Stories of J.G. Ballard (2001). I mentioned that my formative years as a science-fiction reader were the late 1960s and early 1970s. That's when the New Wave was still a major agent of change in the genre, and J.G. Ballard was the new waviest of all the New Wave writers. This monumental volume contains all the stories that blew my teenage mind back then, with early examples of Ballard's condensed novels, later assembled into The Atrocity Exhibition, and precursors of Empire of the Sun, drawing on his childhood experiences in a prisoner-of-war camp in Shanghai. Prescient, weird, essential stuff, hugely expanding the possibilities of the genre, before transcending it.

7) Get In Trouble, by Kelly Link (2015). A terrific collection of short stories by one of the finest fabulists of our time. I started out writing short stories, I'm still writing short stories, I still want to learn how to do better, and Kelly Link is one of the best short-story writers working today. Reading one of her stories is like watching the performance a table magician: although the trick is done right in front of you, you can't quite see how it subverts reality. They mostly feature girls and young women on the cusp of claiming their own lives, drawing on familiar tropes and making them new, often by relocating them in our digitally-dominated panopticon. Her characters may be haunted by ghosts and troubled by vampires and werewolves, but they're also hip to fantasy lore, and there's always some kind of grounding in actual and emotional reality. Link's three other collections are terrific too, but this one is the latest, was nominated for a Pulitzer, and contains my favourite of her stories: 'Two Houses', a story within a story told on an interstellar ship which, like all the best science fiction, questions the difference between the true and the real.

8) The Once and Future King, by T.H. White (1938 -- 1958). If I had to choose only one book, this would be it. I found it in the school library when I was thirteen or fourteen (along with William Golding and Mary Renault) and I've loved it ever since. A great, singular, haunting masterpiece that like Blood Meridian examines humankind's propensity for war, but from the point of view of someone who spends his entire life searching for an alternative. It is, famously, a retelling of Thomas Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur, one of the great foundation stones of British myth. White relocated it to a magical version of the fourteenth century (whose actual kings and queens are mythic ghosts), beginning with the education of an orphan stable boy, the Wart, by a backwards-living Merlin, who fortifies moral and political instruction with direct experience other ways of living by transforming the Wart into a variety of animals, from ants and hedgehogs to geese and hawks. The Wart is, of course, Arthur Pendragon, pulls the sword from the stone to establish his legitimacy, and establishes the round table and attempts to find an alternative to might is right by using might to do right. And fails, because of all-too-human mistakes, but in the last pages, in the last hours before the final battle with his illegitimate son Mordred, passes on the flame to a page, who is, of course, Thomas Mallory. A brief recounting of its story can't do justice to this great novel. It's a unique book, crammed with humour and tragedy, fantasy and history and frank whimsy, with brilliant passages about hunting, falconry, jousting, and so much more. A great work in the tragic mode, intensely human and humane -- there are a couple of passages that still, after many re-readings, bring a prickling to my eyes. I wouldn't be without it.

In the tradition of the radio programme, I was also asked which luxury and piece of music I would like to take with me. As a luxury, I chose the International Space Station: unlike Robinson Crusoe, I wouldn't loot it of necessaries, but would watch as over the years it became an offshore Ballardian reef, technology colonised and transformed by the collective work of humble polyps.

As for music, I chose Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach. I first heard an excerpt from it in 1979, just a few years after it was first performed, when David Bowie helmed a radio programme about his favourite music. Like much minimalist music, its hypnotic cadences are good to write to. This extract is from the very final part; like the LP set I bought, it's truncated from the original, but ends on a very science-fictional question.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Twelve Tomorrows

The novel I'm presently working on won't be published until next year (or possibly the year after), but I do have a few new short stories scheduled for release in 2018. The first, a weird biological apocalypse number, 'Chine Life', is in Twelve Tomorrows, an anthology of original SF stories published by MIT and edited by Wade Roush. It's out on Friday May 25th, so why not order it now? Here's the Table of Contents:

Profile of Samuel R. Delany - Mark Pontin and Jason Pontin
The Woman Who Destroyed Us - SL Huang
Okay, Glory - Elizabeth Bear
Byzantine Empathy - Ken Liu
Chine Life - Paul McAuley
Fields of Gold - Liu Cixin
Resolution - Clifford V. Johnson
Escape From Caring Seasons - Sarah Pinsker
The Heart Of The Matter - Nnedi Okorafor
Different Seas - Alastair Reynolds
Disaster Tourism - Malka Older
Vespers - JM Ledgard

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Armchair Space Travel

Yesterday I started my 64th orbit around the Sun, and I wondered, idly, how much distance that represented. Turns out it's quite a lot more than I thought, but compared to the outer limits of the solar system, let alone interstellar space, not very much at all.

The average radius of the Earth's orbit is about 150 million kilometres, handily defined as one astronomical unit, and the circumference of its slightly elliptical orbit is around 940 million kilometres, or around 6.27 AU. So even if you do nothing all year but sit in your armchair, your track around the Sun would, if unraveled and straightened out, reach somewhat beyond the orbit of Jupiter.* And by simply staying alive for 63 years, I've managed to travel 395 AU, or more than 59 billion kilometres. That's about ten times the average distance of Pluto from the Sun, and nearly three times the distance of Voyager 1 from Earth (currently 141.9 AU).

Voyager 1 was launched in 1977 and officially reached interstellar space in August 2012, after it escaped from the influence of the Sun's magnetic field, but it's still inside the region influenced by the Sun's gravity. Out there, far beyond the planets, are two clouds of icy planetesimals, the origin of comets that now and then fall on long, long orbits towards the Sun. The first is the Hills cloud, a disc-shaped belt extending 2000 -- 20,000 AU from the Sun, and beyond that is the spherical Oort cloud, which may reach out as far as 50,000 AU, a substantial fraction of a light year.

At its steady rate around the Sun, it would take 319 years for my armchair-based mode of space travel to clock up a distance equivalent to that of the inner edge of the Hills cloud, and almost 8000 years to pass through the Oort cloud. As for the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, that's 4.25 light years away, or around 268,700 AU; so far, my travel around the Sun amounts to just a tiny fraction -- 0.15% -- of that interstellar gulf. It would take 42,900 years to make a one-way trip to Proxima, and I'm already out of warranty. Space is big, and life is short. Yet still I move.

*Armchair space travel is more complicated that spinning around a fixed point. The Sun is orbiting the Milky Way galaxy at around 230 kilometres per second relative to the galactic centre; the Milky Way, along with the rest of the Local Group of galaxies, is plunging towards the Great Attractor at around 600 kilometres per second; and spacetime is expanding. But let's keep things simple.

Sunday, April 15, 2018


Thursday, April 12, 2018

It Was Thirty Years Ago Today

As you grow older, anniversaries are too often bittersweet, or remind you of the vertiginous abyss of backwards time you've ascended. This one is the latter: on this day thirty years ago my first novel was published. Written so long ago that it was typed, because home computers and word processing software weren't common back then (although my second novel was written using WordPerfect 4.2, on a computer that, with its printer, cost about the same amount as a good secondhand car). Typed out at least three times, in fact, because there were three drafts, and because if I made more than three typing errors on a page, I retyped the damn thing.

I'm a British writer, but the first edition of Four Hundred Billion Stars was a paperback original in the US, partly because there wasn't that much British publishing in the late 1980s, but mainly because I'd acquired an American agent after publishing a handful of stories in American science fiction magazines. Some of those stories were set in a future history that Four Hundred Billion Stars and the two novels that followed it share, mixing the history of the faltering expansion of human colonisation of the near stars (Larry Niven's Known Space universe was one of its touchstones) with speculations about alien intelligence, cosmology, and deep galactic history. I'd been playing with that future history for some time; it was the setting for the first story I sold, at age 19 (it was never published, because the magazine which bought it promptly went bust: my first lesson in the exiguous nature of SF publishing). Which is why the novel features old school tropes such as faster-than-light travel and a heroine with a low-grade psychic power; ideas about red dwarf stars, brown dwarfs and weird biology were somewhat more cutting edge, but it is at heart a planetary adventure, and looking back at it I can see that I was, like many beginning novelists, writing my way out of my influences.

It went on to win the Philip K. Dick Award (jointly, with Rudy Rucker's Wetware), was published in hardback by Gollancz in the UK and sold to a respectable number of foreign markets, and has more or less been in print ever since (you can buy it in paperback or in ebook). It may not be the favourite amongst my novels, but after thirty years I'm still inordinately fond of it; not just because it was the first, but because of the debt owed to it by everything else that followed.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Note In Passing

I've been deep in the new novel ever since January 1st; that and a couple of other things are why it's been quiet around here lately. But now that the buds are breaking in the neighbour's magnolia tree and the weather is occasionally springlike I've been outside a few times. There was a thing on AI and science fiction in Cambridge University, and an interview for the Economist magazine's TV channel (on the immersive set of the Secret Cinema's showing of Blade Runner), and right now I'm getting ready to head out to Eastercon, where amongst other things I'll be one of the authors reading from and signing my stuff at the Imagined Things Bookshop (3pm Saturday 31st, if you happen to be in Harrogate).

Meanwhile, I still have a novel to finish (it's a 100,000 word novel that's just passed the 100,000 word mark, with some way still to go). Maybe I'll put up a few bits from it here when I get to the second draft and things start to take on their final form. And maybe there'll be time to put up some other stuff too -- after the recent and ongoing Facebook privacy scandal, perhaps blogs might become fashionable again.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

One Year

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (18)

High-end fashion cosplay from Gucci's 2017 Fall/Winter Ad Campaign.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Three Questions

(My answers to three questions asked by SFX Magazine for their book issue.)

What are you working on at the moment?
 I’m thinking about the novel I’ll be trying to write in 2018. A kind of samurai western set on an artificial world after the sun has evolved into a white dwarf and the Andromeda Galaxy has collided with the Milky Way. Kind of thing.

What would be your "desert island book(s)"? (ie the one(s) you can keep going back to again and again)?
T.H. White’s The Once and Future King has long been my desert island book. It’s a retelling of the Arthurian myth in which an orphan named Wart, mentored by Merlyn (who lives backwards in time) becomes king, attempts to create a chivalric age in which his rule isn’t enforced by violent men in metal suits, and how he fails, yet never quite gives up hope. It’s the kind of novel into which the writer pours his entire life, a wonderful baggy monster that comfortably contains low comedy, high romance and deep tragedy, not to mention hugely entertaining infodumps on everything from falconry to the politics of ants. I’ve read it a dozen times, two passages still spring tears, and I like to believe that reading it has made me a better writer.       

What are you most excited about in SF/fantasy publishing?
 The increasing number of novels that aren’t published as science fiction yet use the SF toolkit or contain some weird element, and the increasing recognition that the world is no longer what it once was and never will be again, and we must find new ways of telling stories about it.

Monday, January 01, 2018

New Year's Resolution

 I've started, so I guess I better finish.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Arthur C. Clarke At 100

I never met Arthur C. Clarke, but in the last century, so long ago I was still a teenager and the last Apollo mission had returned from the moon less that a year before, I saw him give a talk at Bristol University in a packed lecture theatre in the Physics Department. I don't recall any useful details about his discussion of the moon landings and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but remember his affable charm and broad hint of a Somerset accent, and one anecdote - that he didn't realise that 2001's HAL was one letter ahead of IBM until someone pointed it out - because I'd read the same quip in his book about the making of the film.

Which was then and still is in my personal top five films, so I'm very pleased that my short story 'The Monoliths of Mars' will be included in an anthology which will be published in 2018 to commemorate and honour the centenary of Clarke's birth. More details can be found here. My contribution is a Quiet War story, and like all the other stories and articles in the anthology, it's exactly 2001 words long.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Before The End Of The Year Overtakes Us

First, thanks to all the people who came to the various events where I was pushing my little anthropocene novel Austral. And apologies to anyone who wanted to come but couldn't, because they were all in London. But I will be in Glasgow, next year. And Harrogate. So there's that. I didn't write much this year, but did publish the ebook version of my career-surveying collection A Very British History, and spent much of the end of it working on a couple of Quiet War stories. And way back at the beginning of the year, the paperback of Into Everywhere was published.

Austral made two best of year lists, both good tick marks. The first was the Guardian's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy round-up; the second was the Economist's list of the best books of 2017. In the latter, Austral is right below Hari Kunzru's White Tears, which was one the best novels I read this year. What with one thing and another, I didn't make lists of books read or films watched this year, but sticking with novels, among those published in 2017 that I very much liked were Michelle Tea's Black Wave, the recent translation of Ismail Kadare's The Traitor's Niche, John Crowley's Ka (I heard him give a terrific reading of an extract at Readercon), Kim Stanley Robinson's New York 2040, and China Mieville's This Census-Taker. Also, two short-story collections, the late Susan Casper's Up The Rainbow, and M. John Harrison's You Should Come With Me Now. And for what it's worth, I spent a lot of time catching up with Martin Cruz Smith's oeuvre, and re-reading Mary Renault's novels of Ancient Greece.

As for films, I liked A Ghost Story, Baby Driver, Colossal, Get Out, The Handmaiden, Logan, The Love Witch, Okja, Raw, and War for the Planet of the Apes. I also liked the astounding aerial sequences in Dunkirk, and would have liked Blade Runner 2049  a lot more if it had dropped the plot and allowed its terrific images of the anthropocene to carry it (like almost everyone else I want cinematographer Roger Deakins to finally win the Oscar he's long deserved). Essential DVD/BluRay releases were Na Hong-jin's The Wailing (2016), in which a hapless detective teams up with a shaman to try to solve an outbreak of brutal murders, Agnieszka Smoczyńska's The Lure (2015), in which two carnivorous mermaids find employment and temptation in a nightclub, Twin Peaks The Return (2017), Criterion's box set of all six Lone Wolf and Cub films, and (at last), Network's release of Bristolian down-at-heel detective series Shoestring. I was living in Bristol when the first season was filmed, but haven't yet glimpsed a so-much younger version of me in the background. Just as well, probably.

Monday, November 06, 2017

London Twilight

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The First

(Note: this is a passage didn't make the final cut of my new novel, Austral. I've repurposed it as a short story.)

For a long time, Antarctica was no more than a rumour. The obsession of a handful of cartographers and hydrographers. A southern land which terminated in the islands of Tierra Del Feugo. A fabled continent isolated by storms, snowy seas and pack ice, inhabited by every fancy of the human mind. Terra australis recenter inventa sed nondum plene cognita.

In 1773 Captain James Cook’s expedition was the first to cross the Antarctic Circle, and in that year and the next he recrossed it from different directions, keeping as far south as ice allowed, ice encountered from every direction, killing the idea that any land beyond was habitable. Other European explorers discovered desolate islands covered with ice and snow to varying degrees; it was some fifty years after Cook’s expedition before the mainland of Antarctica was at last sighted.

By then sealers were plundering the great colonies of fur seals and southern elephant seals in the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, and were sailing south in search of new hunting grounds. Whalers came south too, hunting the southern right whale. One sealer, William Smith, discovered the South Shetlands. Soon afterwards, in 1821, a landing party from the American sealing ship Cecilia, captained by John Davis, made a claim, long disputed afterwards, never settled, to have set foot on the shore of Hughes Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula. Other explorers sailed down the long finger of the Antarctic Peninsula, and sighted Wilkes Land and Mount Erebus and Mount Terror, but there was no documented landing on the continent until 1851, when Mercator Cooper, another American sealer, stepped ashore at Victoria Land in Eastern Antarctica.

Even supposing that Captain John Davis’s undocumented claim was true, there may have been others before him. People who were not Europeans, or Americans. People from shores much closer to the last unconquered continent. It is possible, for instance, that voyagers from New Zealand or Tierra Del Feugo may have been pushed south by storms, and somehow survived the brutal crossing. Lashing their ocean-going outriggers together, surviving storms and giant waves, avoiding bergs and pack ice, and at last fetching up on one of the islands fringing the continent, or the northern shores of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Imagine these voyagers encountering the edge of an ice shelf in the white light of austral summer. Hauling their canoes across its frozen trackless waste. The sea lost behind them in a long glare and a forbidding land rearing up ahead, bare black mountain peaks rising from a tumult of ice, and along the rocky shore of a bay mostly free of ice penguins crowding in their stinking rookeries, solemn as convocations of priests, snowy storms of seabirds whirling up from their cliff roosts, and seals crying like men as lost as they.

Imagine them building stone shelters against the knifing wind. Although it’s January, midsummer, the average temperature is never more than a degree or two above freezing. Imagine them building a great fire from dried seaweed, huddling around it for warmth, their faces scorched and their backs freezing. They make a great slaughter of penguins innocent of fear of man, and use the oily carcasses as fuel, and roast the meat, which tastes of beef laced with rotten fish oil. They raid penguin and seabird nests for eggs and eat them raw. They stalk and kill seals, and feast on their meat and wear their stinking uncured hides.

Perhaps one man goes mad and kills or wounds many of his companions before they can kill him.

Perhaps they split into two factions, and after a fierce quarrel one slaughters the other and hauls the canoes back across the ice shelf and sets out on a hopeless journey across the unforgiving ocean.

Perhaps they die one by one, from pneumonia or from injuries inflicted while hunting seals, from falling from the high cliffs while collecting eggs from sea bird roosts or from food poisoning after eating meat stored too close to their fire.

Or perhaps they have enough cunning and determination to make a kind of home on the Antarctic shore. They boil kelp into a slimy soup, gather shellfish and crabs, use the spears they brought with them to catch pale sluggish fish. Chipping tools from stones, like aborigines of a distant past. Curing hides in salt boiled from seawater in hollowed rocks placed in the margins of their great fire, and sewing clothes and boots using as thread ligaments pulled from seal and penguin muscle. Building hutments from stones, stuffing chinks with kelp and weaving roofs from tough kelp holdfasts. They know that without women their settlement will survive only as long as the life of the last man, and they fortify their resolve by singing the old songs around their fire and telling and retelling old stories.

But winter is coming.

Day by day, the sun in its tireless circuit of the sky dips closer to the western horizon. At last it touches the horizon of the ice shelf, turning it into blood. And ever afterwards it dips below the horizon a little more each day. The temperature plummets at night and the nights grow long. The sea birds leave. The penguins and seals are gone. There are fierce blizzards. Storms that blast in from the sea. Howling winds that strip woven roofs from huts and blow the flames of the fire flat. So cold they pierce hearts and bones. The stores of frozen meat lack sufficient vitamin C and the mens’ gums swell and their teeth loosen, their joints ache horribly and they are gripped by a deadly lassitude, and the great fire, unfed, gutters and goes out, and one by one they succumb to the cold that lies in wait beyond their crude shelters.

Perhaps they survive one such winter, and do not go mad in the months of permanent dark and do not exhaust their stores of food, and supplement their diet with seaweeds rich in vitamins. But in the next winter, or the winter after that, a storm blows so long and hard that they cannot survive. They burn even their canoes, but it is not enough.

They leave behind their huts and the stone circle of their hearth. A clutch of chipped stones. And their scattered bodies, skin shrunk to leather on bones inside seal-hide clothing, mummified by cold. The cold preserves much, but these men were shipwrecked a thousand or five thousand years before Captain Cook’s historic voyage, and at last a great storm washes away what’s left of them, or a tongue of ice pushes down the steep slope above and scrapes the camp clean and pushes the remains out to sea in a last burial, and snow settles where it had been like a new untouched page.

The continent erases them from history, but still: they were the first.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Happy Birthday, Little Book

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

As a spectacle, the sequel to Ridley Scott's Bladerunner, which was based on Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, is vast and achingly beautiful. Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins, marshalling an army of pixel wranglers and visual effects mavens, have conjured astounding set pieces: a flying car falling across a mathematically precise patchwork of solar farms; a shipbreaking yard littered with the dissected remains of huge colony ships; a ruined Las Vegas half-buried in sand, recalling J.G. Ballard's Hello America, and like that novel populated by holograms of icons from the 1950s and 1960s; and the brutalist skyline of future Los Angeles, a post-capitalist dystopia whose neon-lit clash of street cultures is dwarfed by the luminous giants of animate ads.

All of this, explored by Villeneuve's slow-moving camera, is a mindblowingly gorgeous homage to and an expansion of the future visions of its predecessor, and like its predecessor depicts a lived-in, depleted future crammed with telling details. The story it contains is, though, very much smaller, and spun out over almost three hours. Bladerunner K. (Ryan Gosling), a replicant that hunts down troublesome older models, discovers a long-buried secret that threatens to destroy the uneasy truce between replicants and the residual population of humans left behind when almost everyone else decamped for the colony worlds. Following a thin thread of plot, K. uncovers disturbing parallels with his implanted memories, and clues that point him towards a confrontation with former bladerunner Rick Deckard and entangle him with the plans of meglomaniac technocrat Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, the weakest link in the film).

Problem is, the story moves at a glacial pace through a sequence of stylised set pieces like kabuki theatre and a handful of effectively choreographed action sequences; Wallace's replicant sidekick (Sylvia Hoeks), is the only character that gives the narrative any propulsive kick. Questions of about truth, reality and authenticity are raised, but not explored in any depth. And as in Arrival, Villeneuve too often tries to convey profundity with ponderous brooding, while the linear narrative fails to invoke or resolve much of the opaque ambiguity of the original, or to escape the gravity well of its own back story. Yet it is lovely, and contains true moments of cinematic sense of wonder, especially when spectacle and throbbing soundtrack synchronise. Turn off your mind, and watch it on the biggest screen you can find.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Maybe Not As Dark As You Think

Although the Anthropocene has yet to be recognised formally as a unit in the Geological Time Scale, in August this year the working group that's been debating it for some years at last voted to agree that we have transitioned from the Holocene to a new epoch in which human activity is transforming geological processes on a global scale. Many geologists believe that the Anthropocene began around 1950, when nuclear tests spread of carbon isotopes around the world and plastic waste began to become ubiquitous. If that's accepted, then many of us have been living in the Anthropocene all our lives. We've also been driving a multitude of species to extinction, and are responsible for planetary-scale climate change, primarily due to the rapid increase in levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by burning fossil fuels. We have changed the weather so much we need new words for weather. In short, we're all part of a force that's reshaping the planet towards an unknown end point.

All of this and more has long been part of the background hum of most near-future science fiction, and is foregrounded in an increasing number of science fiction and mainstream novels (although, as Amitav Ghosh has pointed out, few mainstream novels set in the present acknowledge the changes in the happening world). Most of these, especially in YA fiction, are explicitly dystopic, set after apocalyptic transitions to full-scale dark Anthropocenes that make the burning oil-fields in the Second Gulf War look like cosy camp fires. Drowned cities, wild weather, pervasive pollution and a global greenhouse, depletion of resources, the end of nature and annihilation of species from whales to bees by the Sixth Extinction, so on, so on. Collapsed civilisations. Authoritarian polders isolated in howling wildernesses, or worlds depopulated by disaster and plague where young heroes can assert their agency.

But is it possible to have a good Anthropocene? I don't mean a blind or passive optimism, or a denial of what's actually happening right now, and will continue to happen at accelerating speed if nothing is done. And I don't mean to underestimate or erase from history the inevitable damage and costs, human and otherwise, of the disasters that are happening now, and will continue to happen, faster and harder, if we don't do anything about it (and maybe, even if we do). But perhaps we can embrace change and to try to work with it, try to ameliorate the worst by deployment of technology and adopting new ways of living, and adapt to those changes that can't be avoided. Perhaps we can accept our place in nature and the responsibilities that come with it, and act accordingly.

A few anthropocene novels have explored how we might find the best ways of living with the global changes of the new epoch. Ursula K. Le Guin's Always Coming Home, back in 1985. More recently, Kim Stanley Robinson's New York 2140, and James Bradley's Clade. And it's partly what Austral is about. The idea that melting of polar ice by the great warming could reveal new lands and new opportunities - regreening the Antarctic Peninsula; creating new biomes that act as refugia for existing species and for those brought back from extinction. Exploring how people could live there, and whether they could avoid or escape the mistakes of their forebears, the people who lived at the beginning of the Anthropocene, and so were best placed to prevent the worst of it. Ourselves.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Hard To Keep Up With The Future

From an article about the facilitated adaption over on Motherboard:

"'From the top of the atmosphere to the bottom of the ocean, we have influenced everything,' Jacquelyn Gill, a paleoecologist at the University of Maine, told me at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Boston earlier this year. 'On some level, that's terrifying, but maybe it frees us up a little to be flexible with our thinking.'

"And that's where colorful creatures like mammoth-elephant hybrids, bleach-resistant coral, and other human-designed frankenspecies get thrown into the speculative mix. This idea, sometimes called facilitated adaptation, posits that damage done to the planet's wildlife can be managed, and even reversed, by manually retooling the genes of threatened species for survival. These genetically modified organisms would be tailored to optimize the health of collapsing ecosystems, merging the futuristic visions of fields like gene-editing, de-extinction, and synthetic biology to support wildlife conservation."

From Austral:
‘Ecopoets were mostly nomads,’ I said. ‘Always on the move. You see that picture? The mammoth? The first ecopoets resurrected them from elephant stock and traits clipped from the genomes of pygmy mammoths that once lived on an island in Siberia. They were used to transport stuff from place to place. They helped with the landscaping, too. Shifting rocks and such.’

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Farewell Fantastic Cassini

Machine into meteor: Cassini's last encounter. © NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
I would have written The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun if Cassini had never been launched, or if it had failed, somehow, on its long journey. After all, Saturn had been already visited by four spacecraft. There were images of the surfaces of its major moons, where much of the two novels take place. There were maps. We already knew, before Cassini arrived at Saturn, something of the history and composition of those moons; could guess what it might be like to stand on the surface of Dione, or Mimas, or Iapetus.

But while the previous visitors had snatched glimpses of the planet and its rings and moons as they shot through the Saturn system on their way to other places, Cassini went into orbit. Settled in. Made the place its home for thirteen years, guided by its flight engineers in intricate loops that took it close to all the major moons, eking out its fuel by gravity assists during close encounters with Saturn and its biggest moon, Titan. Cassini's discoveries and beautiful images of the planet, its rings and above all its moons, immeasurable inspired, enriched and deepened my writing. We make up worlds all the time in science fiction. But here were real worlds as weird as any ever conjured by imagination; real landscapes. Some of those landscapes were - startlingly - like those of our own planet; others were utterly different. Places where people might settle one day - but who would choose to live there, and why? How would it shape and change them? I wrote those two novels to find some answers to those questions, and Cassini helped to bring those wildly strange and various worlds into sharp focus.

Launched in 1997, it arrived at Saturn, one and a half billion kilometres from Sun, in September 2004, its transit time shortened by slingshots around Venus, Earth, and Jupiter. A few months later, the European Space Agency's Huygens probe detached from Cassini and in January 2005 landed on Titan. The first landing on the moon of a planet other than Earth; the most distant landing ever made. And for the first time we saw the surface of Titan: glimpses of mountains cut by branching riverine channels as the probe descended through the thick nitrogen atmosphere and a haze of hydrocarbon smog; a fixed view of the marshy surface, strewn with pebbles, of the shoreline where it touched down.

Frozen beach. © European Space Agency
Titan is the second largest moon in the Solar System. Fifty per cent larger than Earth's Moon; bigger than the smallest planet, Mercury. And because it is so cold out there, where the amount of sunlight is one eightieth of that received by Earth, Titan has retained a thick, opaque atmosphere, and, like Earth, has a hydrological cycle, and weather, and seasonal changes which Cassini has observed for almost half a Saturnian year. Its surface features, with lakes and rivers and huge equatorial dunes, resemble those of Earth, but the lakes and rivers are of liquid methane and ethane, and the dunes are built of grains of frozen petroleum. A chilly but geologically active world that's familiar yet utterly alien.

Mapping and observing Titan's surface was just one of Cassini's achievements. It has discovered more than a dozen tiny moons and moonlets. Shown that the ring system is active and dynamic, an intricate dance of icy particles and shepherd moons and gravity; helped to solve the mystery of why one hemisphere of the moon Iapetus is dark, and the other is ice-bright. And it has not only shown that the little inner moon Enceladus is active, jetting plumes of icy dust from crevices in its south pole that access an inner sea or ocean of liquid water; it has also flown through and sampled those jets, discovering that they contain the ingredients necessary for life.

Jets. © NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
That's the reason why, as Cassini runs low on fuel, its engineers have aimed it towards Saturn. Better a fiery death in the gas giant's atmosphere than ending up in an orbit that might one day intersect with Enceledus and possibly contaminate that inner sea, and any exolife that might exist, with hardy terrestrial bacteria. And so, from April, in what Cassini's engineers and scientists have dubbed the grand finale, the spacecraft has been racing close above the ring plane, zooming through ring gaps, skimming above Saturn's cloudscapes. Engaging in the kind of manoeuvres that until now were too risky to contemplate. Thrilling moves that mirror those of its science-fictional counterparts.

And now, after hooking around Titan for the last time, the spacecraft is heading inwards. Heading towards its final, fatal encounter with Saturn, on Friday. It will go out transmitting a live feed. Doing science until it breaks apart, the sharp end of a great human enterprise of enquiry and discovery. Mourn the machine, but celebrate that achievement, which has accumulated data and images that will be analysed and picked over for years to come. A lasting legacy that's given sense of shape to things formerly unknown, and names and local habitation to places barely glimpsed, or never before seen. Ave atque vale!
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